Wednesday, November 5, 2014

SF Journey

"The City that knows how." -William Howard Taft 

A year ago I was honored to receive the Pomegranate Prize from the Covenant Foundation, which awarded me funds to expand and deepen my professional learning. While there are many ways I could spend these monies, I wanted to approach this opportunity to partake in an experience that I likely would never have considered otherwise as part of my normal professional development and learning experiences.

I am grateful for my large professional learning network, and I often find myself connecting with others at conferences, online spaces or in other neutral settings. Yet meeting others in these settings, and even when getting to learn about the great work they are passionately engaged in, I never get a full appreciation or understanding of the environments they work in or the context of their mission. So, I decided that I wanted to venture to a variety of metropolitan areas with distinct Jewish populations and organizations engaging innovative and dynamic approaches to meet these population's needs. I started by identifying the educational leaders from within my professional learning network who serve the particular community I would visit. This prize gave me the gift to make time to listen to others describe their creative process, their understanding of the communities they serve and what makes their city and and its Jewish population unique.

Being located in Los Angeles, I decided to make the first trip to city within my own state, and I planned my excursion to San Fransisco to visit the Bay Area communities.

San Fransisco/Bay Area

The Jewish community in San Fransisco originated in the mid 1800, and had a huge influence on the city from its founding. This trailer for the film "American Judaism" illustrates the fascinating ways the early presence of Jews in this area significantly influenced early San Fransisco.

Today, San Fransisco stands as a fast growing Jewish community, with an estimated 450,000 Jews calling the Bay Area home. With increased decentralization, inter-faith families and diversity of backgrounds, this Jewish population is marked by non-affiliation, disaffection and often a distrust from the traditional hierarchical structures that have defined Jewish communities in major metropolitan cities.

As a I set out to visit this city, I wanted to explore how different sub-communities within this area respond to these challenges in very successful and creative ways. I had just three days, so I knew I wouldn't be able to visit everyone and explore every organization in the city. I also knew that I would get a basic understanding of the Jewish ecosystem of this area, but not necessarily a complete picture, especially because I would not be able to really spend any significant time with the lay leaders, volunteers and those impacted by the organizations I visited. I did make an effort to visit a range of sites, including a day school, a community after school program, a religious school, an agency, community organizations and even a software start up. I organized my reflection of my journey thematically, based on my own subjective observations and interpretations of my conversations and site visits evolved out of my conversations and experiences.

Serving Unique Populations:

Each of the sub-communities in the Bay area that I visited presented distinct populations. In Palo-Alto, and mix of Silicon Valley professionals, academics and a large infusion of Israelis provided a stark contrast to the more secular and disaffiliated Jews that populated San Fransisco population and its surrounding suburbs. In Berkeley, progressives and others living alternative lifestyles tended to avoid traditional structures. In Lafayette, the geographic sprawl leaves a Jewish population spread out from each other and desperate for connection.

Meeting the Immediate Need:

Engaging these particular population sets requires a keen understanding of the immediate needs of the communities the organizations I visited aim to serve. In San Fransisco, I visited a particularly Jewish cultural center, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, to meet with Fraidy Aber, the museum's Director of Education. As we explored the Museum's diverse collections and exhibits, we discussed how the museum aims both to satisfy the 50% or so of visitors that are not Jewish, while cultivating relationships with their local Jewish community. They utilize cohorts, such as their JET program for teachers and their Teen Art Connect (TAC) program for teens, direct their efforts for sustained relationships and opportunities for immersive learning that extends back into the community. These programs enable the CJM to address the need teachers have to expand their use of technology in the classroom, and for teens to enrich their understanding of the arts and culture in their lives. They attend to the local culture of San Fransisco, with exhibitions and events that celebrate local heroes, such as Warren Hellman, a great local philanthropist, activist and musician in a fun and interactive exhibit Hardly Strictly.

Adam Pollack
, the Western Regional Director for Birthright Next, works with professional and volunteers who aim to engage the SF area millennial crowed. As many of them return from Birthright trips seeking opportunities to engage, Adam works with professionals and community organizations, like Moishe House, to develop better systems for engagement, use available data and best practices for engagement. While Adam views the Bay Area's young Jews dispersed, consumed by their jobs and often disaffected from Jewish life, he is inspired by the efforts of grass-roots community organizations, such as Moishe House and The Kitchen, who create meaningful ways for young Jews to contribute in being part of a community.

As a central education agency, Jewish Learning Works utilizes a variety of methods and programs to address the needs of a diverse community. They have developed programs for adult learning, including the Exploring the World of Judaism program for Religious School parents. They provide resources and support for educators, particularly those who serve specific needs in the community, such as the Include project for students with special needs. Their needs directed approach directly responds to the data they collect and study about the unique needs of the population they serve. In studying the Marin County Jewish population they recognized the needs for concierge like programs and increased family programming. This led to the development of unique programming offerings such as Shalom Explorers and the Kesher Family Concierge service that Rabbi Joshua "Yoshi" Fenton, Jewish Learning Works' Associate Director of Community Engagement, has launched in the South Peninsula and Marin County. Yoshi acknowledges that Jewish Learning Works has a very broad network of professionals, educators and families to serve. He credits Jewish Learning Works' lean and innovative process for creating new programs in enabling them to address the needs of such a unique and diverse population.

In Palo Alto, the Kehillah High School provides its community, and students from even beyond its borders, a unique Jewish educational experience. While providing the full Judaic and General studies, it also provides the atmosphere, support systems and loving support to shield its students from the high achievement pressures of its external culture. Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, Kehillah's head of school, speaks to the critical importance the school provides to Jewish students, and even non-Jewish students, who need to escape the pressures teens in the Palo Alto feel to achieve and compete. In a community where the city addresses teen suicide and medical establishment has programs to address mindfulness, this Jewish high school strives to care for the emotional and spiritual needs in a way that extends as far, if not father, than its extensive curricular and extra-curricular offerings. Marily Lerner, Kehillah's admission's director, provided me with a tour of the school's facilities. The tour revealed that Kehillah definitely provides its students with all the trappings of a Jewish independent school, from a black box theater to a science lab (and access to great facilities at the JCC across the street). Beneath the surface, Marily provided me insight into the ways that teachers and staff foster unique relationships with each students that demonstrate the school's focus on their emotional well being as much as their academic growth. She emphasized the importance of the school wide, class and specialty retreats, the school provides to develop the culture of caring and support that makes Kehillah particularly well suited to serve the needs of its community.

Developing Skills:

The Edah Community originally started in order to meet the need of its founders who desired a rich Jewish learning experience that would be an ideal complement to non-sectarian public and private schools. Most importantly, these parents wanted a program that was easy for them as a parents, yet not just child care for their kids. Edah provides a unique after school experience, which blends Hebrew immersion with experiential learning through a very intentional approach and philosophy. While not all students participate every day, in the time these kids join together with their highly skilled and talented teachers, such as Oren Massey and Yael Aranoff, they engage in a unique blend of community experiences, skills development, text study, ritual practice and creative exploration of Judaism. I was especially impressed by the way they seamlessly interwove project based learning and experiential learning within their synagogue based environment and outdoor space, while still staying true to their Hebrew immersion. Beyond the children's experience, Edah recognizes that the families who participate often do not affiliate or relate to structured approaches to Jewish life. Edah truly becomes a community for these kids and families, particularly through community programs and weekend retreats.

Brett Lockspeiser co-founded Sefaria as a mean to translate his passion for Jewish texts to the skills he developed as a project leader and software engineer at Google and other start-ups. Originally, Brett sought to create an open-sourced project to gather the entire Jewish textual tradition into a new, digital form. Now, Sefaria is focusing its efforts on finding unique ways for people, especially educators, to utilize digital texts in dynamic and sharable ways. Brett emphasizes the unique nature of this technological enterprise that offers users of Jewish texts in Sefaria's technological platform ways to provide feedback for new features and increasing refinement. Brett would love to see others follow in their footsteps to utilize technology, and the start-up mentality and process, to improve people's use of text and their engagement in Judaism. In blending the Bay Area's passion and even obsession for start ups with his passion for sharing the tools for Jewish learning, Brett has created a new model for taking the best of his general ecosystem and applying it to Jewish life.

At the CJM, families and children can develop their creative mindset and skills in the interactive Zim Zoom space. This space, complete with a puppet theater and awesome light board, also features a great pop up space designed by artist Reenie Charriere, who even holds Drop In Art Making sessions. Sitting in this space with Fraidy, I felt empowered by the ways the walls, tables and chairs all implored me to create with others, blending hevrutah, the Jewish traditional mode of learning,with the process of creating art. Reenie has even provided journal books and canvases for participants in the space to ask her questions, respond to prompts and create collaborative art.
This family focused interactive arts space aligns perfectly with a new exhibit just launched next to it called "In that Case: Havrutah in Contemporary Art." This exhibit currently features a dialogical arts installation by Lindsey White collaborating with New York comedian, Ron Lynch, whose images are encased behind a wall, but whose voice erupts into the halls of the museum and challenges museum to take notice and interact with him trapped in this exhibit. In these exhibits CJM profoundly aims to alter the experience of museum going, by creating a dialogue between Jewish culture and experience. They programming and curated exhibits provoke those who participate in the museum's learning experiences to go beyond what it means to identify with the materials as part of one's Jewish identity, but rather to experience what it means to "be Jewish." Fraidy and her colleagues aspire to and achieve in creating a Jewish learning space that must foster the experience of Judaism and the Jewish people, without prioritizing affinity and identification with a prescribed notion of Jewishness, which is so essential within their San Fransisco locale.

Cohort Learning:

For a few years I have been working with Adam Pollack as he worked to cultivate and convene engagement professionals for the NextWork project. In San Fransisco, Adam is piloting new efforts to further utilize cohort models to cultivate greater levels of performance, leadership and connectivity amongst both professionals and lay leaders serving birthright alumni and their friends in the bay area. Adam appreciates the importance that the cohort model offers for peers to learn, support and experiment with together.

This model extends to the Jewish Learning Works efforts to create cohorts Embodied Jewish Learning, which enable participants to support themselves in their Jewish journey. David Waksberg, Jewish Learning Works' CEO, emphasizes that their capacity to affect so many different organizational and educational leaders, despite limited resources, derives from their success in cultivating dynamic cohorts, especially in the areas of special needs, Israel education, teen educators and the integration of the arts. The staff's capacity as connector and facilitators proves as important as their ability directly service their population.

In Palo Alto, at Stanford University, a cohort of candidates in a revolutionary new doctoral  concentration in Jewish Studies and Education, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, a Bay Area based major philanthropic foundation. This program, headed by Ari Kelman, is paving the way for creative thinking in how scholarly research and the practice of Jewish education can be bridged. I spent time touring the beautiful Stanford campus with Matt Williams, a member of the cohort and colleague from JEDLAB. While Matt and I explored the various learning spaces that Stanford offers its many students, we discussed the big challenges facing the study of Jewish education, and the ways his cohort of colleagues at Stanford are exploring the field in unique and integrated ways. We discussed the ways that academia and research could benefit from the grassroots network of educators that have evolved in the digital era (shameless JEDLAB plug), and how researchers could better utilize and communicate with those practicing Jewish education.

Through the tunnel beyond Berkley, I found myself in Contra Costa County, inthe quite town of Lafayette. Temple Isaiah, a reform congregation, serves approximately 800 families. Many of these families live within a very large geographic range, and Temple Isaiah serves a critical convening space, especially for their kids. For these kids, who often don't have contact with other Jewish kids in their own schools, their community time is critical for their sense of Jewish connection and peoplehood. I met with my fellow Pomegranate Prize winner, Rabbi Nicki Greninger, who provided me a thorough exploration of how her program utilizes different track offerings and cohort groupings to meet the needs of her community. She provides her families choice in terms of days and times to participate, and even different family learning options. This enables her to provide these families a diverse range of opportunities for their kids to learn and connect with others. Their learning experiences, whether in Tefillah or in their core curriculum, utilize creativity, different learning modalities and a heavy does of project based learning. The students experience Hebrew through Movement and can explore the thematic Jewish curriculum in a variety of modalities, including a maker-style builder class, art, drama and gaming.

Open models:

When it comes to serving those with unique needs, Bay Area Friendship Circle commits to caring for children, families and creating dynamic opportunities to impact teens through service. My childhood friend, Rabbi Ezzy Schusterman, and his wife, Nechama Levin-Schusterman, run the Friendship Circle in Palo Alto, on the campus of Kehillah High School. Being located within the high school gives them great access to outstanding teens and a great space for their special programs. Like their host, they too have a very open model for serving the population that needs their program. Ezzy, in a similar fashion to Kehillah's head of school, Darren Kleinberg, recognizes that many non-Jewish children need their programs, and that they can best serve their larger community by not creating boundaries based on one's religion. While Ezzy shares that this approach does present challenges at times, he believes his organization's mission to serve those in need depends on their ability to prioritize serving those who need beyond what is most comfortable for him. It was not surprising to me that both Darren and Ezzy both espoused a similar belief in the practice of telling particular stories to demonstrate the impact of their educational organizations. Whether it is overstressed child, or a family who moves across the county with their special needs child and father who is ill, Ezzy and Darren eloquently tell their story. It is clear that that open approach also enables them to be open to better understanding those they serve, and better practiced at sharing how their mission translates into action.

Across the Bridge:

Over the three days o my trip, I traveled over 200 miles, some by foot, most by car, crossing many bridges that mark that Bay Area landscape. I visited with ten inspiring Jewish educational leaders at nine different locations. Reflecting on my experience has definitively provided me with great thematic insights and contextual patterns to appreciate and better understand this unique Jewish community. I truly feel I got a sense of the space and culture walking through SF neighborhoods, such as the Mission, Richmond, Union Square, Chinatown and driving around Berkeley, Lafayette, Palo Alto and exploring AT&T Park, Stanford University, and even eating at the three kosher establishments I could find (Shangri La, Izzy's Brooklyn Bagels and Sabra) in the area.

I feel blessed by the time each of the people I visited offered me, along with their willingness to share with me and to explore the ideas and frameworks of my inquiry. My primary objective for these site visits and trip to Bay Area was to offer myself a unique experience I cannot get sitting in my office, walking through halls of the synagogue I work in, or even in my Los Angeles locale. Yet, as my inquiry deepened, and my connections to colleagues deepened, I found myself wondering how stepping out of my local and into a new environment can provide me insight into the unique ways my organization, and others in my Los Angeles Jewish ecosystem effectively achieve our goals. I think I, my team at Temple Beth Am, and my Los Angeles colleagues, can learn a great deal from our sister organizations in the Bay Area. They rise to the challenge of their unique population and attentively and directly address their needs, primarily by going beyond traditionally defined objectives and methods for Jewish engagement.

I fully intend to continue my own efforst to approach my work with the precision and creativity I found in so many of the people I visited and the sites I explored. I want to strive to better understand the needs of those I serve and develop open models to best develop the skills they need within cohort models that best serve their interest and likelihood for self-sustainability. While at Stanford, Matt Williams and I wondered in the, Stanford's institute of design, where we took a self-guided tour through this center of creativity, process and flow. We eavesdropped on a corporate workshop, and talked with a staff person from the K-12 Lab. I would love my next visit to the Bay area to be with a colleague, or even a group of educators to spend time at the exploring how we can utilize design thinking to best match our innovative efforts in Jewish education to the needs of our community through empathy and ideation.

I am very grateful to Fraidy Eber, Oren Massey, Darren Kleinberg, Ezzy Schusterman, Matt Williams, Adam Pollack, Brett Lockspeiser, Yoshi Fenton, David Waksberg and Nicki Grenninger for being such amazing and open partners with me on this journey. I hope that my inquiry into the Bay Area provided them an opportunity to reflect and explore their own work in dialogue with an outsider to their community. There are so many other people and sites that I did not get to explore, and colleagues that the timing just did not work out, and I know that they understand and appreciate how much I would love to explore with them in the future.

Thanks to the Pomegranate Prize, I am currently working to identify the next city I will explore. I feel blessed to have these opportunities, and I hope others will be inspired to take their own journeys as well. Ultimately, I would love to have cohorts of educators travel together to a different to experience what I was able to in just three days. It would have been amazing to road trip around the bay are with another colleague, or a group of colleagues, as having a hevrutah would greatly enhance the experience.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Yechiel for that in depth report. I was very impressed by the innovation and collaboration that we experienced at JET14. Even though I live in Los Angeles, this was my first visit to the Bay Area in 40 years. We have a lot we can learn from our neighbors up North, and I'm  already diving in with DT coaching with Erica Fortescue, the Associate Director of Programming at the Center for Childhood Creativity (sponsored by JET14).