Will We Be Builders and Not Just Buyers?

 Posted by on July 13, 2011 at 6:34 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Jul 132011

By Sarah Kass

Today’s e-Jewish Philanthropy reports JDub is closing up shop despite a 9 year history of innovation and success.

The reason?  Financial pressures.

The article notes that “among the reasons stated for closing are [an] ‘aging out of the cohort of Jewish “start-ups,”’ and rightly suggests this is a “troubling thought to those of us familiar with the exciting and expanding world of Jewish innovation.”

JDub–an incubator for Jewish artists, a platform (through Jewcy) for young Jewish creativity, and an important connector of mainstream Jewish portals to new audiences—was apparently served well in its early stages.  According to the article, both Joshua Venture and Bikkurim helped JDub get off the ground.   But where was philanthropy once JDub grew beyond the start-up phase? Not so interested.

The challenge of scaling and sustaining innovation is not unique to JDub or even the Jewish community.  But it is a challenge that can and should be anticipated by and addressed by philanthropists interested in the Jewish future.  As remarkable platforms like ROI and PresenTense draw creative young Jews into imagining new Jewish projects, there needs to be the commitment to helping the best of these efforts go beyond the initial spark of creativity to become the transformative projects and institutions they could become.

George Overholser and Craig Reigel of the Non-Profit Finance Fund, diagnose the problem very clearly.  In their 2010 Portfolio Performance Report they usefully distinguish between two kinds of social investment, buying and building.  It is worth quoting their clear definitions in their entirety.  Here is what they say:

“Buyers purchase program execution, often on behalf of others. Buyers buy tickets for museum admission, provide scholarship grants that pay for individual tutoring sessions, give annual grants to help pay the cost of mounting human rights campaigns or pay for foster care services on behalf of government, to name four straightforward examples. Without buyers, programs don’t happen: even an all-volunteer program requires that people give their time, “buying” the program operations by, in essence, paying for labor. Buying doesn’t pay for growth, trial and error, shifts in strategy, or changing what an organization is capable of doing. It’s about asking the organization to continue to do what it already does, year in and year out. Buyers choose to buy for many reasons: performance vs. the competition, personal experience (or self-interest), price, convenience, loyalty, sentimentality—all familiar to buyers in any sector. Satisfied buyers continue to purchase products and services they like. All the flavors of “buy” money—including everything from earned revenue to annual grants to endowment income and more—are what sustains a healthy nonprofit by reliably covering the full cost of operations as long as there is demand for services.

What if a nonprofit needs to change what it can offer to the public? What if it needs to modify its operations, or strengthen its reputation, or improve its efficiency? What if it is bursting at the seams and satisfied buyers are urging it to expand? This is where builders come in. They provide philanthropic equity. The equity can be used for any purpose, and a builder pays for deficits incurred ahead of a rebuilt business model. The equity provider’s aim is to build an improved mission factory that is not only better at executing mission-focused programs, but also attracts even more reliable buyers for the foreseeable future. Building requires time, close stewardship, and a patient process of trial and error. It has a high risk of failure and often requires major shifts in strategic direction and personnel. Importantly, it is an episodic process – once an enterprise is built, the builders can exit. Indeed, it is by dismantling their growth capital “scaffolding” that builders can be sure the growth capital has been successful, and prove they have built an enterprise that can stand on its own.”

They go on to say that when non-profits and funders do not distinguish between building and buying, “bad things happen to good causes.”

As the Jewish community seeks to entice creative young Jews like Aaron Bisman and Ben Hesse to imagine new ideas for the Jewish future, how will we prepare ourselves to be builders and not just buyers? I suspect if we won’t build,  new creative ideas will die unrealized, our future will be diminished, and our best and brightest will take their creativity elsewhere.

21st Century Torah

 Posted by on July 12, 2011 at 7:58 am  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Jul 122011

By Sarah Kass

In a few weeks time, when we read Parshat Eikev, we will once again be invited to contend with the warning in Devarim Chapter VIII against building big houses and amassing great physical assets, lest we “become haughty and forget God”   and foolishly think it was we and not He who gave us the strength to make wealth.

In her new book, The Mesh, internet pioneer and author Lisa Gansky lays out a vision of a post-ownership society which might begin to address the Torah’s concern.  In Gansky’s view, the future of business is sharing. She chronicles the success of companies like Zipcar and Groupon and Netflix to suggest an emergent post-ownership mindset that is good for people, good for the planet, and good for business.  Mesh businesses are those where the “core offering is something that can be shared, within a community, market, or value chain, including products, services, and raw materials.” They use “advanced web and mobile data networks to track goods and aggregate usage, customer and product information.”   As an example, Zipcar tees off the phenomenal fact that most owned cars sit parked 23 hours a day, and allows people to use a shared car for the one hour they need to drive.

Imagine if our Jewish Day Schools adopted a Mesh mindset and saw their school buildings not as owned-assets but as shareable assets.  If a school is used at full capacity from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. 180 days a year, that means it is used only 1440 hours per year, or 16% of the time.  How might the other 7,320 hours in the year be made available for other purposes?  How might those other purposes benefit the community and benefit the school?  How could the sharing of the building augment the mission of the school?  Imagine if Jewish Day Schools taught their students the Torah’s concerns about the dangers of material wealth, not just by talking the talk but by walking the walk.

Lisa Gansky’s Ted Talk

Click here to see one Pastor’s take on how Gansky’s framework could save his dying Church.

Jewish Education: Heirloom or Gift?

 Posted by on June 13, 2011 at 7:47 am  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Jun 132011

(My remarks to the 10th Graduating Class of the Pardes Educators Program)[i]

Sarah Kass

When I was asked a few days ago to step in for AVI CHAI’s chairman and say a few words to you on behalf of the foundation, I began to think about what I might say to young people about to enter the noble profession of teaching.

My first thought was to speak to you about the McKinsey report on education.  The report concludes (1) that nations thrive when they have excellent schools; and (2)  those thriving nations have excellent schools when those nations make sure their best and brightest go into teaching.  And I thought in that context to say to you that our Jewish nation will therefore sleep easier tonight knowing that you—among our nation’s best and brightest–are going to be teachers.

Then I thought I might say something about how not only are you getting to be teachers, you are getting to be teachers at the dawning of a revolutionary age.  I thought of telling you to imagine what it must have been like to have been sent forth to teach in the 1440’s, in the age of Gutenberg.  In those days, the printing press had begun a revolution, not only in the access to information, but in the functioning of the human mind.  “Why should I remember what you’re telling me when what you’re telling me is written down in my book?”  1440’s students must have asked their young hotshot teachers.  I imagined reminding you how this here age of Zuckerberg is even more revolutionary—both in terms of the amount of information it makes available and in the ways it is consequently transforming the human mind.   Your students will be thinking, “Why do I need school when there’s Google?  Why should I do my own work when there’s Facebook?”   I thought of saying how you will not only be experiencing the timeless magic of teaching, you may even be participating in the reinvention of the contexts and modes in which it happens.

Then I realized what I really wanted to do here was ask you a question.  So here it is. My question for you  Pardes Educators is, “How will you bring forth the fruit you have taken from your  sojourn in this orchard, in this Pardes?”  How will you carry your fruit, your Torah learning?

It just so happens the coming days offer us two very different examples of bringing forth fruit.  In two weeks time, in Parshat Shlach, we read the story of the spies who scout out the Land of Israel.  When they come back to tell of their travels, we are told the spies show the fruit to the People of Israel (Bamidbar, XIII: 26):

.וַיָּשִׁיבוּ אֹתָם דָּבָר וְאֶת-כָּל-הָעֵדָה, וַיַּרְאוּם אֶת-פְּרִי הָאָרֶץ

For these spies, the fruit is but a souvenir, a showy object, an artifact.  Indeed, the real story for these spies—how the Promised Land is not so promising—entirely drowns out the fruit.  Carried as a mere artifact, the spies’ fruit have no sticking power.  As a mere artifact, their enduring sweetness cannot possibly compete with the day’s more provocative headlines.

With Shavuot, Chag Habikurim–the Festival of the First Fruits—a day away, we can recall a very different mode of carrying fruit.  We are told in Devarim XXVI, when the People of Israel come into their land they are to bring their first fruits as a gift to God:

.וְלָקַחְתָּ מֵרֵאשִׁית כָּל-פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר תָּבִיא מֵאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ–וְשַׂמְתָּ בַטֶּנֶא; וְהָלַכְתָּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם

In so doing, the text goes onto indicate, the people are to recall both their history and their purpose.  The bringing forth of fruits as a gift rather than as an object  invites the remembering of who we are as a people, why we go forward as a people, and what our mission is.   Most significantly, the text goes on to say, bringing forth fruit as a gift, inspires great joy (XXVI: 10-11):

וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי, יְהוָה; וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.  וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל-הַטּוֹב, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ–וּלְבֵיתֶךָ:  אַתָּה, וְהַלֵּוִי, וְהַגֵּר, אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ

Carried as a gift, the fruit is not a quaint artifact easily overshadowed by what’s way more current and oh-so-hip.  Rather carried as a gift, the fruit inspires gratitude.  And gratitude, in turn, inspires the desire to give more.

After your years at Pardes, you Pardes Educators are going forth with lots of fruit.   The question is, will you bring it forward as the spies did– as an inert souvenir –or will you bring it forward as a living gift?  Knowing this place where you have learned, and the people with whom you have been blessed to study, I am confident that you will carry forth your fruits—your Torah learning—as a great gift.   What sets you Pardes Educators apart  is not only that you are among the best and the brightest, and not only that you are going into teaching in revolutionary times.  What sets you apart is that you have been to Pardes, a place where Torah study is never approached as a survey of artifacts or as the unveiling of an heirloom,  but where it is joyfully celebrated as a living gift.  You have tasted the fruit of this orchard, of this Pardes, and so you will carry it forth as a gift that keeps on giving.

We celebrate you.  We are grateful to you.  And we look forward to the day when your students begin to give to others the fruits you will be giving to them.

[i] This text is based on remarks delivered in Jerusalem on June 6, 2011. These Pardes Educators, like the nine classes of Pardes Educators who have come before them, will be teaching Judaic studies at Jewish day schools across North America, after having spent two or more years studying at The Pardes Institute.

It’s long, but you asked for it. . . .

 Posted by on June 1, 2011 at 6:55 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Jun 012011

Here is the full text of Sarah Kass’s Memo on AVI CHAI’s spending down in the 21st century, referenced in yesterday’s post.

Spending Down in the 21st Century
By Sarah Kass, Director of Strategy & Evaluation [1]

In North America, AVI CHAI’s planned spend-down has prompted a shift in our thinking.  We have moved from an abundance mindset—operating with abundant financial resources and abundant time—to a scarcity mindset—trying to make a difference with scarce financial resources and scarce time.  Our abundance mindset enabled us to choose to do many good things without choosing among the competing good things.  Our abundance mindset did not require us to think about partners and successors—we had the money, time and human resources to do it ourselves and do it well.  By contrast, a scarcity mindset requires that we choose among competing goods.  It also makes us think about sustaining the goods we choose, since we will not be around to enable them to continue.  Scarcity at AVI CHAI makes us shift the onus of propulsion from us to our key partners—other philanthropists, key institutions advancing Jewish Literacy (L), Religious Purposefulness (R) or , or Jewish Peoplehood (P), [2] or communities.  And scarcity shifts our attention from pushing products to strengthening markets—of consumers and producers.

Specifically and practically, this new scarcity mindset is leading us away from exclusively planting trees and toward fertilizing soil—away from providing LRP programs to day schools and camps and their personnel, and toward attending to the conditions and contexts that will enable those settings and people to thrive.  Whereas we once focused exclusively and successfully on curricula, personnel enrichment programs, and other LRP enhancements for camps and schools, we now also consider how to ensure that day schools are affordable for the foreseeable future (strengthening the viability of the day school market for its consumers), and that core institutions that serve day schools are strong (strengthening the viability of the day school market for its producers).  This has been the impetus for the efforts of our “workgroups” and our strengthening institutions activity.

Meanwhile, as has been reported previously, the North American staff and the executive committee of the board have spend much of this past year engaged in an intensive education about the workings of this new 21st Century.   As we have read, talked, and beheld the technological wonders of the world around us, we see that just as AVI CHAI’s spend-down offers a new mindset, these remarkable (and perhaps revolutionary) times offer AVI CHAI a new toolkit.  And perhaps ironically, whereas the spend-down induced mindset is a scarcity mindset, the new toolkit proffered by this digital age is one that invites a mentality of abundance.

Let us take a moment to peer into the realities of this new world.  Once upon a time, in the middle of the 1400s, a man named Gutenberg revolutionized the world by inventing the printing press.  The printing press enabled mass literacy, and mass literacy empowered previously ignorant masses of people, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Down came the power of kings and churches.  Up came the power of ordinary people.  Today, with the number of mobile phones in use around the world heading toward 5 billion (eclipsing the number of working toilets); every one of us can be Gutenberg, with the equivalent of our own printing press available to us 24/7.

Think about what has happened to journalism, retail, entertainment, and countless other sectors.  Once there were THE New York Times and THE Wall Street Journal, now there are the so-called pajama media, which can be anybody and everybody who cares to write something and press send.  When the pajama media are in countries such as Iran where the professional media have limited access, the pajama media become our best (and sometimes only) source of information. What was once scarce has become abundant.

Once there were retail stores where physical space and local preferences defined what was for sale.  Now there are online stores with infinite shelf space serving a global marketplace.  What was once defined by scarcity is now unabashedly abundant.  Once there was Blockbuster; now there is Netflix.  Once there was Tower Records offering 50,000 tracks during store hours; now there is iTunes, with upwards of 25 million tracks available on demand.  Once there was network television; now there is YouTube, which offers at one time more content than the entire movie and television industries have produced throughout time.  What was once scarcity has become abundance.

Once there were photographers, today there is Flikr.  Once there were weekend garage sales, today there is eBay, where one person’s hand-me-down is another person’s treasure, and where every day millions of people (including the disabled and the home-bound) make their livings.  What was once scarcity has become abundance.  When in the third quarter of 2008 the stock market tanked and “no one had any money,” a candidate running for President of the United States raised $175 million in small donations, the largest amount ever raised in any political campaign in a single quarter.

In today’s world, everyone and anyone can be a journalist, a movie producer, a retailer.  Each and every one of us can do this from anywhere at any time.  And there is no telling whether the most influential ones are the “professionals” or the “amateurs.”

The age of abundance means community and collaboration do not require institutions (constrained by time, space, and money).  Collaboration requires no travel, no wait time, and no common location.

The age of abundance means we can all be producers (of goods, content, meaning, ideas, and effort) even as we are all consumers (of the same).  What we produce can be infinitely customized, personalized and adapted.  And likewise each of us can be an infinitely discriminating consumer—of news, products and services, ideas and entertainment, with the power of the most powerful available to each of us in the form of our hand-held mobile phones.  The age of abundance means there are infinite messages, and anybody and everybody can be a messenger.

The age of abundance means small is the new big—the entire “long tail” of the less “mainstream” can make themselves heard, yes for worse, and yes, for better.

Most of us feel at sea in this world of abundance.   (After all, the post-Gutenberg world took a good 200 years to sort through the ramifications of that first information revolution.)  And many of us may not like it.  We may prefer the local cinema to Netflix.  We may pine for the simple days of ABC, NBC and CBS in this age of YouTube.  We may wish our children could get lost in the library stacks instead of in Google.  We may like the Wall Street Journal more than the Huffington Post, Bloomingdales more than eBay, leather-bound Britannicas more than Wikipedia, yearbooks more than Facebook.   But like it or not, here we are.  And more to the point, ready or not, here they come.  The power (for good or not-so-good) of many has been unleashed and it is not going away.

And so, the question for AVI CHAI (or for any other institution, whether for-profit, not-for-profit, local, national or global) is not “what do we think of our age?”  Rather, AVI CHAI (and other institutions) must ask “what does it take to get things done nowadays?”

Once upon a time powerful institutions could command people’s attention.  But in this world, when ordinary people can get in the proverbial door without turning its knob or even setting eyes on it, the key is earning people’s attention.  Earning people’s attention can no longer be done by using traditional marketing and advertising.  Pushing ideas, even good ones, even pushing them hard, is not sufficient in today’s world.  Why?  Because when every person with a mobile phone (all 5 billion of us) can push ideas, even well-financed pushes get lost in the global competition for people’s attention.   These times of abundance demand new strategies for being heard and for making a difference.

While the curse of these times might be the overload of information, the blessing is the ease of connection to those who are like-minded.  On the one hand the world has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) arising from the constant oversupply of information.  On the other hand, every institution, every cause, every person can build, find and sustain niche networks.  If you have a hobby, no matter how arcane, it is easy to find fellow-travelers no matter how far away they may reside.  If you collect things, no matter how obscure, it is easy to locate rare additions to your collection that may be in someone’s basement thousands of miles away.  If you have a question, big or small, it is easy to ask 700 friends at once.  If you care about a candidate, an issue, an idea, a law, an event, a person, it is easy to scour the planet for all those who concur.  Rather than bringing a few select people to address a problem, the age of abundance invites each of us to bring our problem to our people.

What we have learned is that the key to breaking through the cacophony of this age of global ADD is building strong and engaged networks of like-minded people.  If we see something in the world worth changing, we must find those people who are already inclined in the same direction and inspire them to assemble those they know who are inclined in the same direction who will inspire those they know to do the same.  That is to say leadership must be tribal (bringing together like-minds) and it must enlist membership in something.  This holds true if we are selling Pepsi Cola (witness their new campaigns to co-market with users’ causes, placing the latter on their cans), helping Haiti, running as a Republican in Massachusetts, launching electric cars or student villages in Israel, seeking public financing for day schools, or trying to increase Jewish summer camp enrollment.  The aim is to replace the push of the institution with the drive of a movement—not a mass movement, but a Tribe, a movement of the true believers.

Who are AVI CHAI’s “many” or AVI CHAI’s “multiple manies” and how will we identify them, unite them and unleash their power?  Up until now, AVI CHAI has relied on its financial resources as its primary lever.  AVI CHAI has used money to put programs where we wanted them.  AVI CHAI has used money to make institutions and individuals do things we thought they should do.  How might human resources become our primary lever?  How might AVI CHAI  find them, connect them, and empower them to propel the financing of day schools, the strengthening of institutions, and sharing of the core ideas we and they care about, to build the Jewish future we and they are waiting for?

In an abundance economy, a thousand $100 donors are more powerful than one single $100,000 donor, precisely because 1000 is more than 1.  In an abundance economy, where bulk mail has been replaced by Facebook and Twitter, 1000 people can instantly reach 100,000 people, and 100,000 people can quickly connect to 10,000,000.  In an abundance economy, an idea goes much farther if it is propelled friend to friend to friend to friend–with each friend using the language she knows will engage her friends, who then use the language each of them knows will engage his and her friends–than if it is centrally packaged and pushed.  Or as one person put it, it’s about links not hits.

AVI CHAI North America often speaks about how we push against the grain.  AVI CHAI imagines itself holding the torch of Jewish-heavy amid the darkness of Jewish-lite.  When most 21st century Jews think assimilation is a triumph—after all, the universities and hospitals and law firms that were once closed to Jews are now run by them—AVI CHAI pushes for Jewish particularism.  And more than that.  When most Jews are content with a Jewish particularism of bagels, grandma’s chicken soup, Yom Kippur and tikkun olam, AVI CHAI seeks to promote the particularism of Jewish literacy, religious purposefulness, and a connection to the Jewish people with Israel at the center.  AVI CHAI dreads the tidal wave it sees rushing over its efforts and threatening to drown everything it cares about in a sea of intermarriage, indifference, and all that is possible in America.

Long before there was Obama2008, there was The Heritage Foundation, a great fount of the conservative movement that has long been supported primarily by thousands of individual donors.  And as they explain it, the secret is linking all of the overlapping circles.  Person One cares about X, Y, and Q.  Person Two cares about X, B and C.  And Person Three is passionate about X, K, and J.  Person One describes X one way.  Person Two practices X another way.  Person Three does some X, but only at certain times of year and when certain people are present.  Heritage has learned how to bring Person One, Person Two, and Person Three (and Persons Four, Five, Six. . .) around a common commitment to X, even though none have Y, Q, B, C, or K and J in common, and none articulate X quite the way Heritage does.  Likewise, if we listen closely, no doubt there are multiple ways to express or enact a commitment to L, or to R or to be P.   The more closely we listen, the larger may be our LRP tribe.

As AVI CHAI chooses among the goods to accomplish over its remaining decade—lobbying for public funds for day schools, building an endowment for day schools, building strong LRP institutions, perhaps making the case for Jewish education—it will be important to do this work with the toolkit of abundance.  Bringing these tools to our work will require resources, perhaps as much as 10-15% of the funds we have left to spend.  But our learning makes us confident that we cannot afford to work otherwise.

Here is another way to think about what all of this means. Think of AVI CHAI’s offices in North America.  Right now they are composed of many, many bricks.  Together these bricks make up the beautiful edifice standing tall on the corner of Park Avenue and East 85th Street that houses AVI CHAI’s soon-to-be waning power.  Now imagine putting each one of those bricks into the hands of a different LRP champion—be it an institution in New York or San Francisco or Jerusalem, a passionate day school parent in Louisville, an inspiring congregational rabbi in Las Vegas, a sixth grade technology wizard in Phoenix, a twenty-six year old Bible Rapper in Atlanta, an inspired DeLeT teacher, a Cornerstone Fellow, a Pardes educator, or an AVI CHAI Fellow in Boston or Philadelphia.  And imagine that each brick, each in someone else’s hands, becomes the cornerstone of a new commitment to some piece of the work.  Together all of those brick-holders would be AVI CHAI’s successors.  But rather than an AVI CHAI whose resources are scarce, this new network  would be an abundant and renewable platform of LRP possibility that a single  stand-alone institution could never achieve, even one that chose to remain open for yet another century.

The future is bright if AVI CHAI assembles and empowers those who will make it so.

[1] This report was originally submitted as a Memo to the Trustees of AVI CHAI, in May, 2010.  It is informed by a year’s worth of learning undertaken at AVI CHAI North America.

[2] AVI CHAI refers to its core focus on Jewish Literacy, Religious Purposefulness and Jewish Peoplehood as LRP.

Spending Down in the 21st Century

 Posted by on May 31, 2011 at 5:35 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
May 312011

The AVI CHAI Foundation–like so many companies, non-profit-organizations, and individuals–is learning how to be effective in the “attention economy,” otherwise known as the digital age in which we live.  Here is a Memo presented to the AVI CHAI Trustees exactly a year ago expressing the opportunities and challenges we face trying to do good in the 21st century.

One of the critical ideas expressed in the memo is the opportunity these times offer for us to shift our mind-set from an outlook that assumes scarcity to one that assumes abundance.  How is the digital age shifting your mind-set or that of your organization?

Sarah Kass
Director of Strategy and Evaluation

The Pardes Educators Program: Preparing Textpeople

 Posted by on May 4, 2011 at 7:10 am  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
May 042011

This new video is a beautiful celebration of teachers and their power to make a difference.

The Pardes Institute in Jerusalem is a unique institution that nurtures each student’s own attachment to and passion for Jewish texts and the Jewish people.  Teachers in the Pardes Educators Program take that rich Beit Midrash experience with them into Jewish day schools and literally shape our people’s next generation, one child at a time.

Do you know someone who wants to prepare for a career in Jewish education?  If so, show them this video and see what happens!

Sarah Kass
Director of Strategy and Evaluation

Apr 062011

How Technology Can Humanize the Classroom
Posted by Sarah Kass

When we think of educational technology, we imagine machines replacing what we regard as the human elements of schools.  We picture Google searches replacing librarians.  We imagine remote lecturers replacing live instructors.  Perhaps we envision individual kids each at his and her own terminal, perhaps with headphones on, no longer benefiting from peer discussions.   Recently, our colleague Eli Kannai, introduced us to the revolutionary work of Salman Khan, via his TED Talk:

Khan, a former hedge fund analyst, stumbled upon the power of videos to assist learning while tutoring his cousins and went on to found Khan Academy, an online video-based platform for learning.  What I find most inspiring about Khan’s talk is his contention that his technology humanizes the classroom.  He insists, and I think rightly so, that the current classroom with its human teacher and 25+ students is already a dehumanized environment.  Why?  Because he shows there are 3 inherent tensions always in play in classrooms no matter how excellent and well-intentioned the school:

1- The one teacher to 25+ kid ratio, no matter how gifted the teacher, and no matter how homogenously grouped the kids, makes it  impossible for a teacher to tailor her material to the learning style and needs of every student. And therefore, the default is too often a one-sized-fits-all pedagogy.

2- The pressure on the teacher to cover content necessarily impedes the possibility that each student master the material.  A bell curve of results on a given unit gets recorded as a bell-curve of grades, and the next unit is introduced, despite the majority of students having demonstrable gaps in their understanding of the previous unit.

3- Time available trumps time needed.  The school year is 180 days, the math period is 40 minutes a day.  Whatever the student is unable to demonstrate knowing in those 7200 hours is assumed not to be known or worse, not to be knowable by the student.  Over time, that label determines future educational options available to the student, when perhaps had she had more time other things could have been possible.

Khan’s approach uses technology to reduce each of these dehumanizing tensions, and so humanizes the classroom.  By putting content on videos, the work of the classroom can be flipped.  The students can watch the content at home—rewinding when something is unclear, watching it again when they need to—and the classroom time can be about practicing and applying the content.  Rather than doing the work for homework, the work can be done in the classroom setting.  The student experience of the classroom becomes active, not passive, and the pedagogy employed by the teacher need not be one-size fits all.  Moreover, the Khan site tracks student performance so that the student and teacher are given granular analyses of what the student knows, what she is working on, and what she does not understand.  That way, it’s possible for a single teacher to get beyond the assumed bell curve, and find ways to address the tough spots for every kid.  What’s more, when some students are proficient in the very areas where classmates are struggling, peers can become each other’s best supports.  Finally, the material on line makes it possible for every child to take the time he needs to get it.  And lo and behold, with a little more time on task, students who might otherwise have been labeled as weak are able to progress and to soar.

Can you imagine classrooms where the expectation is every child can learn at a high level and every teacher is able to realize that expectation?  Can you imagine Jewish studies versions of Khan Academy where the teacher need not bear the double burden of covering material and engaging children in exploring and practicing the Jewish values implicit in that material? Can you imagine the Jewish studies teacher having room to be the moral exemplar and not just the content provider, and students experiencing themselves in the Jewish studies classroom as active members of a live tradition?  How do we bring the wisdom of Khan to Jewish education?    We’d love to hear your ideas.

Text “Ramah” to 20222

 Posted by on April 4, 2011 at 11:14 am  No Responses »  Categories:
Apr 042011

Text “Ramah” to 20222
Posted by Sarah Kass


One of my memories of the North American Jewish Day School Conference in January of 2010 was its coincidence with the worldwide efforts to send relief to Haiti in the wake of the devastating earthquake.  In particular, I recall the texting campaign enabling individuals to make a $5 or a $10 contribution to the Haiti relief effort directly from a cell phone.  I remember thinking the time had come when events and conferences would no longer begin with the words, “Turn off your cell phones!” Rather, cell phones had become devices able to help not hinder participation. I wondered when this technology would make its way into the work of the Jewish day schools and overnight summer camps.  This morning I learned from Rabbi Mitch Cohen, Director of the National Ramah Commission, this day has arrived.  Here’s what Rabbi Cohen wrote:

Dear Partners,


Our Mobile Giving system is now live. Anyone with a US cell phone (we are investigating Canadian options) can text the word “Ramah” to 20222 and $5 will go to support Tikvah and all the Ramah special needs programs (Breira, Yofi, etc.) through the Ramah Bike Ride (messaging  and data rates may apply). You may also include your name and camp if you would like to be listed among the Ride’s supporters.


While we still are encouraging website donations through (over $100,000 has been raised to date!), we recognize that hundreds more Ramahniks and Ramah supporters who choose not to give to this website might be willing to show their support through this new cell giving technology.


We are now discussing how to best get the word out (it’s already spreading via Facebook networks). Feel free to share this message, with the important caveat that those who don’t pay their own phone bills MUST first get their parents’ permission.


This is an exciting new experiment in viral philanthropy for Ramah and we look forward to seeing the results.




This bold effort for Ramah’s even bolder efforts on behalf of many of the neediest members of our community gives each of us—no matter our age or means–the chance to help build a more inclusive Jewish community.

So this week, when you are moved to tell your students, colleagues, family members to turn off their cell phones, pause, and, consider first inviting them to text “Ramah” to 20222.  You do not need to be a “Ramahnik” you just need to have to have a cell phone.

Please pass it on. . . .