Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Purim Special

I have always been enthralled with the holiday of Purim and the Book of Esther. The first unit I ever designed to teach was of the book of Esther. I explored its satiric storytelling use to create a blueprint for a diaspora community struggling to survive and maintain its Jewish identity amidst great assimilation and mortal threats. I think it went over most of those eighth graders heads.

The Book of Esther provides the basis for celebrating the holiday of Purim. Amidst a story of threatened genocide and a "miraculous" turn of events leading to revenge, the authors of the book of Esther provide a response intended to guide the diaspora community of Jews against future threats and long term sustainability. Yet unlike many other biblical guides, the book of Esther avoids any religious, theological or even the centrality of a homeland in their prescription for future success.

In Esther, Chapter 9, Queen Esther and Mordechai, the Jew, instruct the Jews, and subsequent generations to observe a holiday of feasting a drinking. During this holiday, the people are instructed to partake in four activities to remember their history and commemorate their victory. In a world of upheaval, where only by "turning things upside down" can the Jews be safe, these four activities serve as a guide to securing the one element that will provide for the future:

  1. Mishloach Manot: The giving of a portion to another
  2. Matanot L'evyonim: Gifts to the Poor
  3. Seudat Purim: The Purim Feast
  4. Megillat Esther: A Public Reading of the Book of Esther (twice)
These four activities provide the means to create COMMUNITY, in varied ways. Gift giving and feasting occur within the private domain, with close friends and family.  The reading of the holiday's narrative and providing monies to the poor occur within the public domain within a broader circle of one's community. Each emphasizes a different aspect of sustaining relationships, and relating community to past, present and future.

Here is an article exploring this theme within the Mitzvot of Purim:
So in the spirit of Purim, I would like to borrow from these four mitzvot and apply them to the field of Jewish education. Much has been said about the importance of Jewish education to do the very thing that Esther and Mordechai fought so hard for: to create a vital Jewish people in the face of assimilation outside of the land of Israel. To do this, we must enure that our community of Jewish educators remains strong and vital.

I propose the following for activities for Jewish educational leaders:
  1. Mishloach Manot: As Rav Shmuel Herzfeld explains in this article, in lieu of gifts of food, we can share Torah with others. Jewish educational leaders should find ways to openly share their wisdom and understanding. It is not just a matter of self aggrandizement, but rather in spirit of building community that each and every Jewish educational leader should create a blog, a twitter account and facebook account to be a part of a larger professional learning network and share their "Torah" with others.
  2. Matanot L'evyonim: Jewish educational institutions struggle even to provide the highest quality of educational services to their consumers/members/constituents/students, but it is imperative to fully strengthen our community for the long term that Jewish education also concern itself with those beyond its walls. How can educational leaders provide educational opportunities to those in need of quality Jewish education, but may not be able to afford it, access it or be ready for it. Projects like Harkham Hillel Academy's Project Kesher are great stars.
  3. The Purim feast: This is intended as a joyous way to bring people together to celebrate, be merry and connect. Unlike the Shabbat dinner, there are no Shabbat restrictions or rituals. This is the Thanksgiving dinner for the Jews. So let's remember to give thanks and be merry. It is so critical to bring your stakeholders together to celebrate the many accomplishments of your institution. This includes your faculty, staff, board, lay leaders, parents, volunteer AND students. By celebrating together we appreciate each other and the roles we play in creating success.
  4. Reading the Story: Every institution should share its history. Thankfully many institutions have proven success over time, but as time passes and generations of students move in, it is critical to be reminded why the school originated, what community it was intended to serve and all those that have sacrificed for its success. Yet, even when creating a mythology around history, be very careful to remember to lessons of the Megillat Esther. Being able to satirize one's narrative, and poke fun at one's authority figures is what enables creativity and innovation to thrive, rather than fear and survivalism.
These four activties, inspired by Purim, serve as a worthy guide to creating stronger community through Jewish education, internally and externally. There is one more aspect of Purim, coming from the term V'nahafoch Hu, meaning "it was turned upside down." This reference from the Book of Esther, provided over time as a source for other Purim customs, including masquerading, drinking during the Purim Feast and the Purim Shpiel (Play) and carnival. While these customs bring much joy to children, bring about false parallels to Halloween and enhance the spirit of the Purim feast, they also provide a final lessons for Jewish education.

  1. Don't take yourself so seriously
  2. Don't forget to leave time for play.
  3. Don't forget it is all about the children.

Here is a brilliantly Purimy, Stupid Video my former students did for the Jewish Journal

Happy Purim and get ready, it's just one month until Passover.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A New Learning Paradigm (and not a Buzz Word)

It is clear to me that the 21st Century Jewish educational endeavor must develop its capacity for innovation and creativity. Jonathan Woocher makes the case in his article "Reinventing Jewish Eduation for the 21st Century" that we need a new paradigm for Jewish education in which innovation and change is the natural order, rather than a response to crisis.

For any new paradigm to emerge, Jewish education must forefront its change efforts around a movement that aims for the field, its institutions, its leader and its beneficiaries to thrive, and not merely to survive. Survivalism offers a comfortable feeling of security locked in a nostalgic authorization of past glory, upended by contextual infringement. To thrive in an age of rapid change and discomfort requires an embrace of chaos, uncertainty and willing experimentation, hallmarks for the innovative enterprise glorified in Silicon Valley, Israel's "start-up nation" and the technology revolution.

Firstly, we must forget the buzz words of innovation, design thinking, gamification, 21st century skills, etc. I am not sayin these concepts are not important, or critical to the future of Jewish education, but simply relying on these words to make us sound smarter at conference, at back-to-school nights and to funders is not going to improve the quality or value of Jewish education in order to make us thrive.

I believe the secret to Jewish education thriving in the coming century actually lies within something we all know well, and have done well for over two millennium:


The core of the field of Jewish education's capacity to innovate and grow resides in our organization's capacity for learning. Our organizations will evolve as every individual within our organization become agents for our organizations to learn. We will only be able to continuously improve at the rate to which our students learning needs grow if educational leaders can learn more effectively and faster. Rather than relying on tradition competencies, such as costs, Jewish education can create a clear value advantage over any competition (of which there is much), by emphasizing organizational learning.

So, thinking of your organization, which of these six organizational learning principles (Wang and Ahmed, 2003) do you want your organizations to thrive by?

1. Triple Loop Learning (See Video Below for explanation of Double and Triple Loop Learning)
Learning how to learn depends on constantly questions existing products processes and system. Organizations must engender the capacity to ask where the organization should stand in the future marketplace, rather than simply asking what is wrong, and how to correct and prevent flaws.

2. Organizational Unlearning
Organizations need to abandon current beliefs and methods even when producing reasonable results. Rather than prolonging a successful product, process, policy or system, organization must be willing to move on in order to create something better.

3. Knowledge creation
Ultimately, innovation capacity is considered a continuous process knowledge creation, which occurs through radical changes that lead to the accumulation, dissemination, retention and refinement of knowledge.

4. Creative thinking
Innovation occurs only through unexpected moments of creativity and insight, rather than predictable patterns.

5. Competence-orientation
Typically organizations try to attain a competitive advantage by being better and cheaper than competitors.  The organizational imperitive should be to make current competition irrelevant and focus on being open to new opportunities that assure performance on terms established by their own standards of excellence.

6. Organizational sustainability
Organizational learning is directly correlated to organizational outcomes and to continuous improvement. However the nature of the Jewish education market requires an emphasis on value innovation through a creative quality process as the only way to sustain competitive advantage. Only by delivering new value to the marketplace can a Jewish educational organization truly become sustainable.

So rather than simply emphasizing affordability, and other survivalist practices, Jewish education needs to veer from temporary profitability and incremental changes.  Instead, we must place a large scale emphasis or creative and innovative change rooted in organizational learning.

I hope to use this blog to further explore organizational learning, innovation and the importance of understanding these frameworks and tools to create the vibrant, valuable and successful paradigm for Jewish education in the 21st century.

I would love to hear your thoughts, ideas and explorations on these topics, either through comments on this blog, on twitter, or via direct communication.

Wang, C.L. & Ahmed, P. (2003) "Organizational learning: a critical review". The Learning Organization (10:1), P. 8-17.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What Can Jewish Ed Learn from Jewish Start-Ups?

A few years back Joshua Avedon and Shawn Landres coined the term Jewish Innovation Ecosystem to describe and explore the burgeoning growth of innovation in start-ups and traditional institutions. Having spent the last 20 months leading an organization attempting to thrive in this new ecosystem, I often wondered what I can learn to share with the field of Jewish education.

I especially feel it is pertinent to reflect on the impact of innovation on Jewish Day School education, having just experienced the frantic and frenetic rush of the NAJDS, where Naomi Korb Weiss, Debra Frieze, Tony Wagner and others provided critique, vision and tools for a new framework for leadership and innovation in Jewish Education. The strong support, collegiality and collaborative spirit of my JDS PLN (Professional Learning Network).

After a twenty month self imposed hiatus from blogging (being Executive Director of LimmudLA did not leave much time for reflection or writing),  I am inspired to return to blogging. I intend for this blog to continue to be a means of fostering a conversation that can hopefully extend beyond my own questions, observations and ideas and become a launching pad for transforming abstract ideas into practical reality.

I left schooling to lead a lean mean community organization, that was just leaving its infancy stage and into life in the the second-stage start-up phase. At LimmudLA, we depended on innovation as a process to maximize limited resources to serve a broadly fined target demographic for a specific mission and set of values. Our innovative process, engineered through organizational learning enabled our programming, volunteering, fundraising, communication, community partnerships, and organizational systems to increase efficiency, productivity and value.

So it seems fitting that having explored the world of of innovation, startups and Jewish communal experience and learning, what can we learn. How does my experience leading LimmudLA reflect upon the current state of 21st Century Jewish education?

The 5 Questions for Jewish Education:

  1. How do we prepare learners for lifelong learning that reflects 21st century adult experience?
    1. What do today's students need to know/be able to do in order to be able to engage as adult learners?
    2. What assumptions are we relying on about how Jewish adults are learning that may not match up with reality?
  2. How does innovation as a process of creating new value, become engendered in our schools organizationally and as an educational objective?
  3. If choice is a central modality of adult Jewish life in the 21st century, how do we create schools where students can safely learn to navigate, discern, course correct when empowered to independently choose pathways for their journey?
  4. What is the role of technology in building community and enabling individualization?
    1. How do we ensure that offline engagement and unplugging remain critical components to our lifestyle?
  5. How can we foster, identify and activate natural and latent networks within our school, between our schools and to our local and global communities?
    1. How can schools develop vibrant and fruitful collaborations with community leaders and organizations to promote increased ownership, integration in our students educational journeys and organizational effectiveness?