Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dumb and Dumber Parents Teaching Kids Non-Accountability

A former Boston Bruin, Mike Milbury, landed up in our local jail, charged with assault and battery of a minor. At a youth hockey game that he sponsored and in which he served as one team's assistant coach, he grabbed a twelve year old kid's jersey and swore at him (A kid from the opposing team). The mother of the kid said Milbury went beyond that re. physical abuse. Milbury's version--provided in today's Boston Globe Sports section, maintains that the kid bullied Milbury's son, steadily throughout the entire game. Milbury asked the opposing coach to police his players; no response, just one of those "everybody's doing it." Milbury insisted he just tried to separate the bully from his own kid when all else failed. Who knows what happened? Witnesses support Milbury's story.

Assume his side for the moment. Where is the nitwit mother of the other kid? Are parents incapable of policing their own kids? Holding them accountable for their actions? Coaches too for that matter? In "Coach," what I think is his best book, Michael Lewis recounts his high school baseball coach, who lamented that for many kids today "All this is about a false sense of self-esteem. It's now bestowed on kids at birth. It's not earned. If I were to jump all over you today, you would be highly insulted and deeply offended. You would not get that I cared about you."

It's about over-parenting and under-parenting. Don't blame the school, the coaches, the teacher: blame your kid or at least try to ascertain their responsibility for their actions. And try to stay out of the damned way once in a while, letting professionals ply their trade. Lewis' coach lamented that he no longer enjoyed meaningful relationships with his players. "I can't get inside of them anymore. They don't get it. But most kids don't get it. The trouble is every time I try the parents get in the way."

For this life task we require no license? Amazing: the most important job in life and the least regulated....

Reform Orthodoxy

Regarding the recent Table piece on Reform orthodoxy.
The Political Orthodoxy of Hebrew Union College – Tablet Magazine

Orthodoxy reflects temperamental tendencies as much as actual thinking through of issues, and assessing them on their merits. It therefore comes as no surprise that Reform Judaism--in this case Hebrew Union College--struggles with its own process for meaning making and decision making on all sorts of issues, particularly Israel. When I served in a pulpit, a neighboring colleague who served in the nearby Reform temple, told me the following story. When he came to the synagogue, more or less fresh out of rabbinical school, if memory serves, he wore a kippah, pretty much all of the time. He informed the temple's senior rabbi that he planned to wear his kippah at prayer services. The senior rabbi accepted this practice, though he maintained no such observance for himself. But he asked the junior rabbi to speak to a senior board member and to inform him of his intentions. The younger man spoke to this board member, who responded, "That's fine, Rabbi, but if you do so I'll resign from the temple."
What we see in the recent controversy at HUC reflects this historical tension in what it means to be a liberal Jew. Does this term refer to the phenomenon of Jews "liberated" from large, pre-existing entities like Church and State and by implication free to chart their own course? Or does liberalism constitute a set of fixed positions on any given issue or cluster of issues? That board member, and by extension the "orthodoxy" at HUC, reflects the latter view, one that leaves little room for the illiberal view on anything and everything from Israel to social action to ritual concerns. Historians see "Classical Reform" in that light, a late 19th century worldview that sought to articulate and legislate a coherently anti-ritualistic Reform position. That view supplanted but I would argue undercut an older view that made more room for a religious liberalism centered on personal autonomy. Autonomy guarantees self-expression, but can one maintain strong communities unified around anything? That struggle continues to live at the heart of religious liberalism everywhere.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Israel and American Jews

Why the fuss about the Israeli attempt to reach out to diasporic Israelis?
American Jews took offense. They felt the marketing strategy painted them as both disconnected from Israel and bad for Israelis. Pardon my obtuseness--and some would say my classical Zionist mentality--but why the fuss? How is this not true?
Israelis should worry about yeridah; though the Start-Up Nation gurus extoll "portable Israel" as if its the Information Age's equivalent of the Torah as a portable Jewish homeland, they're hardly the same. Israel is an actual place, a state and society, whose very existence depends not just on security matters, but its ability to remain demographically viable. So is the reality of a large Israeli diaspora worrisome? How can it not be? That's not to mention certain specific sectors like the academy, where the brain drain worsens daily.
Ok, I hear you say, that may be true, but why the crude, mawkish commercials?
Anyone who works in Jewish life knows that Israelis here in the states can be hard to reach. Many of them behave like all immigrants; they instinctively gravitate to their like. That's fine. But their Jewishness, however complex and complicated in Israel, remains inextricably tied to Israel: its civic religion, its institutions, etc. Since little or none of that exists in diaspora, why are we surprised when many "non-religious" Israelis struggle to find their place in American Jewish life.
Finally, does anyone really believe that being here, where high school kids focus more on Stanley Kaplan than on deciding which unit one will be going to in the army, makes no impact on an Israeli's connection to Israel? Of course it does. These are two radically different societies, in spite of unceasing heavy-handed attempts to promote their congruence. That may be true compared to the strangeness of Islamic and or Arabic states, but that's really not the point.
So too with wounded feelings of American Jews that they feel that Israelis depreciate American Jewish connection to Israel. How many American Jews visit Israel? How many make aliyah? How many would like their kids to live there? How many--whether because of assimilation or genuine philosophical struggling--feel at least somewhat estranged from an ethnic Jewishness that their parents and grandparents embraced, centered on peoplehood tropes like the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel? As wonderful as AIPAC Policy Conference is, most American Jewry is not there, neither in body nor in spirit. Yes they want Israel to exist, but in what way is it actually consequential in their lives?
The bottom line is that these are two different Jewish communities, for better and for worse. One invented off of a religious paradigm borne out of Protestantism and the Enlightenment; the other romantically rebelled and internalized the need for a nation-state of its own for the sake of political and cultural renewal. Each benefits the other; each damages the other. Let's actually talk about this, rather than hunkering down and taking offense when the other acts for its own benefit. Israel should continue to work to create or recreate strong connections between the motherland and its wandering Jews, and American Jews should understand that without defensiveness. And Israelis should learn to appreciate the vitality and diversity that has marked American religion generally, and American Jewishness in its own more modest way.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Defensive? Moi?

We invest so much in our kids, and therefore rational thought often/usually eludes us when it comes to the JEWISH IDENTITY conundrum. We can't figure out exactly what we want to be, much less what we want our kids to be, much less how to get there, much less how to apportion responsibility among us, our kids, their schools, teachers, social settings, synagogue, etc. So my explicit/implicit critique of Schechter in no way ignores the much fuzzier reality that is much larger than the school and what it can and should be doing. Having said that, what should these schools be doing and why?

1. Clarify the nomenclature: what are they exactly? Independent schools, parochial schools, movement schools? That's just another way of figuring out what the worldview is...

2. Think more like summer camp. Camp's organic, removed, fun. None of those apply to school, at least not all the time. But try to have the Jewish equivalent of Phil Spectre's "Wall of Sound" where everything reinforces everything else: teachers talking Jewish "have a good shabbos" to kids on Fridays, music on the intercom, dancing, art, the works.

3. Try to work more closely with synagogues and rabbis again to reinforce messages/content. Lots of wasted energy that falls through the cracks.

4. WHAT ARE THE STANDARDS FOR JEWISH STUDIES? Hebrew? Bible? Rabbinics? Halakha? Israel? What do we want these kids to know and why? Is there a logical sequence to the curriculum?


The last one is the rub for me: I can't help feeling that we try so hard to be inclusive and non-judgmental that we end up shortchanging families in terms of taking them seriously re. saying "you're here...we want you to be here + 35% when you're done at SSDS." If you're not willing to push, to critique, to make claims about what constitutes Jewish excellence, which yes does include making our best claims and value judgements, then how is growth possible? We do that for math, science, english, are we doing that for growing the Jewish person?

I once heard a rabbi say to students: "why would you do any of this stuff if you didn't believe that it was true?" We need to have the courage to ask that of ourselves? what is our truth? What are we willing to do for it? To teach it to others?