Thursday, September 11, 2014

Quote of the Week: I wish I was Jewish

This semester for my field placement at JPDS, I am finally being forced to learn Hebrew in a real way. The third, fourth, and fifth graders know more Hebrew than I do, which makes it hard for me to help them with their Hebrew translations for Judaic Studies, but there are two new students to the school this year who have no Hebrew background, so I have volunteered to tutor them in the aleph-bet.

As an aside, I should mention that, while this is a Jewish Day School, it is also a community day school and they have a number of non-Jewish students enrolled (whether because it is better than their public school options, within walking distance of their homes, or any other reason that a parent would enroll their child in a private school). These two students - a boy and a girl - are not Jewish, so the Hebrew is new and hard for them, but they are so focused on learning it. Time for me to channel their drive, dust off my Rosetta Stone, and give Hebrew another try myself!

During our first lesson today, we reviewed the difference between בּ (a "b" sound) and ב (a "v" sound) and between ד (a "d" sound) and ר (an "r" sound), coupled with different vowels to make different sounds, like "da-beh" or "reh-va."  Aside from the Hebrew, I also wound up teaching them about what it means to be Jewish.  They were both shocked that I am not from Israel, have no family in Israel, and am not fluent in Hebrew.  "But I thought you were Jewish!" the boy said with obvious confusion.  We had a quick discussion about what it means to be Jewish, but the duality of Judaism as a people and a religion was a question that took me over a year to understand and three years later, I am still not good at articulating an answer.  If the history of the Jewish people has taught us anything, it is that there is no easy answer to that question.

Later on in Judaic Studies, while my female student struggled determinedly to translate parsha Vayeitzei - eyes flicking back and forth between the text and her vocabulary sheet to find סֻלָּם and scribble "ladder" above the Hebrew, circling the prefix and suffix on the word וְרֹאשׁוֹ in order to find the root meaning "head" in the middle of the word - she said in frustration, "I wish I was Jewish!  T
hen I would already know Hebrew."  If only being Jewish came Hebrew proficiency that could be downloaded into your brain!  Lacking that, we will have to stumble through the language together.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Pew: A Portrait of Millennial Jewish Americans

For my Contemporary Jewish Life class this week, we are reading and discussing the Pew Survery: A Portrait of Jewish Americans, published in October 2013, as well as five responses to the data, which were all new to me, despite the vast amount of reading I did on the subject when it was first published last year.  Those articles, if you care to read them, can be found here (I reference this one specifically in my response below), here, here, here, and here, though there are many other great analyses of the survey out there as well.  This class has forced me, after a year of trying, to put some of my own thoughts about the study into words.  Those thoughts are below.

Pew Survey: A Portrait of Jewish Americans
Much has been written - both Jewish and secular - about the disengagement of the Millennial generation in almost every context.  For Jewish purposes, this dovetails nicely with the ever-present concern of Jewish survival into the next generation.  Whether it is our growing rates of intermarriage and secularization, decreasing support for Israel, or plummeting synagogue membership, we are a cause for concern about the Jewish future.  Solutions to the Millennial problem have been varied.

Every generation since Abraham and Sarah has worried that it would be the last.  In a sense, the numbers in the Pew survey can only serve to reinforce a fear that has never needed help gaining ground.  Alarmists look at the numbers and predict the end of Judaism within the next two decades (or some equally short span of time).  On the other hand, optimists see increasing pride in Jewish identity as a sign of the end of anti-Semitism in America.  Others claim that the survey was flawed and, therefore, can be of little use.  While the data can be interpreted in many conflicting ways, there can still be value in quantifying the obstacles we face on the road ahead, so that we can use our resources as efficiently and effectively as possible.

In response to continuity concerns following the publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, the Jewish Federation pushed for better Jewish education, creating programs like Birthright and pushing Jewish summer camps (see Tobin, Loving Us to Death).  As a result, the vast majority of my friends were were raised Jewish have wonderful memories of their trips to Israel (I do too!) and a working knowledge of Birkat Hamazon.  These experiences have clearly left an impression, but, except in very rare cases, those organized Jewish opportunities disappear once we reach adulthood and we are left with the difficult task of continuing our Jewish education and maintaining a Jewish life all on our own.  It is my guess that if a study addressed the age at which Jews disengage with Judaism, it would show a significant drop in engagement around age 22, when we leave college and truly enter adulthood.

If it is becoming easier for Jewish Millennials to assimilate into American society, it should be equally easy, if not more so, to feel welcomed in our own communities.  I think that a push for experiential education aimed at Millennials and no-pressure opportunities to learn about Jewish ritual observance (like Chabad offers, but without the Rebbe) would go a long way toward keeping us in the fold.  Where they exist, efforts to engage young Jewish adults seem to be incredibly successful.  Washington DC has Sixth & I, Philadelphia has The Collaborative (and others), and Birmingham, Alabama has You Belong in Birmingham.  Each of these organizations brings together young adults for social and philanthropic events, sometimes in a specifically Jewish context, but usually not.  The successes of these programs should attest to the desire of Jewish Millennials to engage Jewishly.

To a certain extent, I have to agree with Tobin's analysis that outreach to Jews who are on the edges of Judaism (and their non-Jewish spouses) is a waste of our time, in the sense that it does little to engage individuals before they reach the outskirts of our communities.  Perhaps, similar to the 1990s push for Jewish education, experiential educational opportunities for Jewish adults who are post-college and pre-parenthood would create a comfort with and knowledge of Judaism to maintain that Jewish identity into the next generation or, at least, into the next stage of life for Jewish Millennials.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Graduate School: Week 1 Recap

As I mentioned previously, over the summer I started a graduate program in Washington DC!  The summer was jam-packed with new friends, new projects, and new museum jargon.  After a whirlwind 6-week summer semester, I returned to Birmingham for the month of August to digest all this new information and to pack up my life for a permanent move to DC.

I've been back for a week and I've hit the ground running!  It seems easiest at this point to split my life into three categories: Personal, Religious, and Academic.

My new apartment in Silver Spring is wonderful and still has that new-apartment smell!  I quickly learned how to get from my building to important places like the Metro, grocery store, and Starbucks, but I'm still working on remembering how to get to the downtown shopping center.  There is a Ben and Jerry's and a New York & Co. downtown, so I'm sure I will find my way back there soon enough.  Yesterday, I learned how to take the bus to the day school I will be working at for the semester.  The apartment itself is beautiful.
My living and dining room
We have a great view of the Metro tracks and what will eventually be a landscaped park area.  For now, Marc is still in Birmingham, so the apartment is pretty sparse and quiet.  I can't wait until he moves here with me permanently to start his new job (three weeks and counting).  This summer and the next three weeks are the first (and hopefully last) time I have ever lived alone.  It's incredibly boring and lonely to live alone, so it has forced me to become more of an extrovert.

Learning my way around a new town also means finding the kosher food and the synagogues.  Silver Spring (and Southern Maryland in general) has a large Jewish population, so I have many options to choose from.  The local Giant carries plenty of kosher products, but I also have two kosher grocery stores within driving distance for even more variety.  I had heard very good things about Moti's (formerly Kosher Mart) in Rockville.  The accompanying restaurant of the same name has excellent falafel, pita, and hummus, but I was more impressed by the grocery selection at Shalom Kosher right here in Silver Spring.

On the synagogue side of things, I have at least four options within about a mile of my house (and that's not including the Reform synagogue), all somewhere between Conservative and Modern Orthodox.  The High Holidays are coming and, for the fourth year in a row, I am in a new place shul shopping in a rush to find a community in time for Rosh Hashanah.  So far, I have visited one - Ohev Shalom.  It was my first experience in a Modern Orthodox shul with a mechitza.  The mechitza is a half-wall that runs down the middle of the room, so men and women can see each other and have equal space and sight lines to the action.  The community was welcoming and we had a very nice lunch after the service with a few members (thanks to one of my classmates, Rena, who coordinated it at the last minute).  We have since been invited to the Rabbi's home for dinner.  I plan to continue my Jewish firsts this weekend with a trip to my first independent minyan, Segulah.  After that, I will head back to my comfort zone in the Conservative movement at Tifereth Israel.

It's been a long time since I was in school with readings, assignments, and projects to do.  I have to say that I was starting to like the nine-to-five professional life, but education has sucked me back in.  I'm hoping that I have outgrown some of my worse undergrad habits - like procrastinating and drinking too much caffeine - over the past four years, but I guess we'll see about that.  I couldn't be more excited about this program.  It combines everything I have ever wanted to do.  For those who don't know, I will be receiving a Master of Arts in Education and Human Development (M.A. in Ed. & H.D.) in Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts (EE/JCA).  Yes, it's a mouthful.  Basically, it is a combination of Museum Education and Jewish Cultural Studies.  There are seven of us in this "pioneering" cohort trying to find our ways into the wide-ranging field of experiential Jewish education.  In addition to learning about Jewish life in DC with my EE/JCA cohort, we are also part of GW's Museum Education Program (MEP), which is a class of thirteen.  Together, the twenty of us spent the summer learning the history and best practices of museum education.  My vocabulary now includes phrases like "entrance and exit narrative," "lofty outcome," and "MEPiphany" (credit to my MEP friend Alli for that last one).  I missed them all on our month off and was so glad to see everyone again this week.

Coming from Knox's trimester system, where each term was only ten weeks long, I am having trouble envisioning a regular sixteen-week semester, but I'm sure I will appreciate the extra time later.  This semester I have three classes:

  1. Contemporary Jewish Life will cover Jewish life in America after WWII, including topics like Jewish cultural and religious identity, food, and music.  There is not a single thing on the syllabus that I am not excited to read about and discuss.  The Pew survey on American Jewish life?  Can't wait to re-read it!  Judaism in the Diaspora?  Awesome!  Interfaith marriage?  Bring it on.  Join me in my love for this class by watching Stephen Colbert's 1-800-OOPS-JEW Atone Phone segments.  The class will require weekly blog-style papers in response to our readings, so hopefully that will make me better at keeping up with my own blog.
  2. Museum Audiences also promises to be fascinating.  I look forward to building a skill set that will allow me to engage museum visitors of all ages and backgrounds.  It is important in any public presentation to know your audience and museum audiences are no different.  My classmates have wide-ranging educational and professional experiences that I hope to learn from in this class.
  3. Field Placement and Seminar is designed to give us experience with an audience we are not particularly familiar with.  I have been assigned to the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation's Capital, where I will be teaching two special needs fifth grade Judaic Studies classes about art in relation to the Book of Exodus.  I don't know anything about special needs education or art, so this will be fun.  If you know of any art exhibitions in the Washington DC area that contain Biblical art (specifically about Exodus, if possible) and would be suitable for a fifth grade field trip, please give me suggestions!  Thank you!
This has been my first week of fall term.  I will keep you posted as the weeks go on.