Looking for an easier way to frame the complexities of your (or your students’) relationship to technology? Meet Scully – Rabbi Jeffrey Schein’s Granddoggy. In this short video graphic novella, Scully simplifies his own complex explorations into two questions we might ask ourselves about our own relationship to technology.

It’s Complicated: Scully and the SmartPhone is part of the Text Me project’s reflective pedagogy, designed both to engage the learner and to increase the self-awareness of the teacher on this broad topic, the latter goal being a key element to our most creative teaching.

You can also explore other reflective pedagogy tools and enriched curricular units here.

The Masked Rider

I have been wondering what might account for the waning motivation to be “masked” in public during the COVID-19 pandemic.

You will most likely connect with my questions and observations (posted in my education column at the Mordecai Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood) if:

a) You are puzzled or perturbed by the reduction in mask-wearing as a mitzvah/act of civil obedience;

b) You are old enough to remember the Lone Ranger radio and television shows and its clarion call to pay attention to “the masked rider”;

c) You are a biking enthusiast;

d) You love looking at contemporary situations through Rabbi Ben Bag Bag’s understanding of Jewish texts;  keep turning it and you will always find something of value.



Tithadesh: Renewing Jewish Education by Going “Retro” with Mordecai Kaplan

Education requires a guiding vision. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement, had a vision for Jewish education unlike any other; and yet we now find ourselves in a very different world than the one for which Kaplan described and took action on his vision.

We invite you to come and explore how the Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood (for which I am the Senior Education Consultant) has evolved Kaplan’s vision for Jewish Education for the 21st Century. This project should excite Rabbis, scholars, educators, theorists – AND the Center needs your help to bring it to life.


A Virtual Lag B’Omer and Shavuot, or (with apologies to Prince) “Let’s Go Crazy” with Numbers, Words, Nature Experiences  and Other Forms of Multiple Intelligences


So Lag B’Omer without a picnic is like:

a) Lox without cream cheese

b) Pesach without matzah

c) A golden opportunity

My answer is C.  I never cared much for Lag B’Omer picnics (always thought the Romans were going to get me) but of course I can be nostalgic for the free play and company that was part of them and missing from our lives at this moment.

I am sharing some resources and ideas about alternative ways to do Lag B’Omer and some Shavuot resources, particularly a poem I dearly love and have used as part of our Shavuot family sedarim for years.  This builds out of the presentation on Saving Shavuot, Multiple Intelligences and Counting the Omer that Deb and I did last Sunday for the Kaplan Center.  I will share the link here when it becomes available.

I am glad to have an offline conversation if a colleague is interested in extending or customizing to his setting as part of a virtual Lag B’Omer or Shavuot learning.  Perusing the possibilities below will likely be a basis for deciding if such a collegial (i.e., free) consultation would be meaningful.

First, take a look at the chart of multiple intelligences below, a good graphic image that includes the 8th naturalistic intelligence not in Gardner’s original seven.  Some have speculated that if Gardner were more deeply rooted in Judaism, or not the child of Holocaust survivors, he might have developed a 9th form of spiritual/religious intelligence.

We take the Kaplanian/”Judaism as a Civilization” project as a whole as being closely linked to this understanding of multiple intelligences. Al regel achat, we want Judaism to be rich, diverse and creative enough so that future Jewish poets, scientists, artists, societal transformationalists and more all find a Jewish derekh for themselves.

Below are three possibilities for Jewish learning and engagement, each built from the multiple intelligence model.

Celebrating our Number Smarts

In my experience, kids and adults with strong mathematical intelligences rarely have a chance to shine in Jewish life. The counting of the Omer with its overtones of larger Gematria meanings is a great opportunity to re-equilibriate the intelligences in a Jewish context.

Share a chart with the numerical value of Hebrew letters (Gematria). The exploration might move in a number of different directions:

  • Invite people to construct the Gematria of various days of the Omer counting.

  • Get personal.  Did you know every person has a secret Gematria based on the numerical value of their Hebrew name?

  • Create the Gematria value together.  Tell people that if they ever run into a person with the same Gematria, they have found their bashert.  Do a family Gematria based on your shem ha-mishpacha.

Other possibilities:

  • What is the Gematria of your congregation?

  • Transliterate your city and state into Hebrew. What is their Gematria?

  • Discover together the Gematria for the following Jewish values:

  • תורה   ברית   מצות   ישראל   אהבה   חסד   צדקה   רחמים   חכמה   תרבות

Celebrating our Nature Smarts

Go outside in your back yard or a safe park area.  Have a tena/basket in hand.  Collect a beautiful supply of colors and shapes in the tena.  Give them a prominent place in your home (or on your porch!) Invite families together on or around Erev Shavuot to share their baskets via Zoom (or by posting pictures on the synagogue webpage).  Recite together the ohseh ma-aseh beresheet blessing.  Read together the bikkurim passage (Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:2).

Please be sure to consult with President Trump for an update on the health issues that might be involved in this activity.  Ha-Ha! Joke!

Celebrating our Word Smarts

Invite your learners to respond and interpret this extraordinary poem by Leah Naor.  Perhaps they even want to compile a mikraot gedolot of their own interpretations.  Note that the poet draws from some of the same Midrashic sources as Judith Kaplan Eisenstein’s operetta about the Israelites receiving the Torah.  Some of the questions you might explore revolve around the poet’s intent and the repeating chorus of “that is exactly how it was when they received the Torah.”   Is it?  How does the poet want us to orient ourselves to the giving of the Torah?  Are we being cajoled? Cradled? Challenged?

Here is the poem in English:

When They Received the Torah

A Poem for Shavuot by Le’ah Naor from her book Chag  Li

When they received the Torah … When they received the Torah*

The desert was still and no bird chirped and the wind did not blow and the ox did not low and the people stood around and everyone saw.

That’s exactly how it was when they received the Torah**.

It was on the third day of the third month. Just yesterday they all finished washing their garments, and suddenly there was a heavy cloud, all of the mountain of Sinai trembled and I heard that everyone really saw the voices.

That’s exactly how it was when they received the Torah.

From the mountain smoke arose, it was like from a kiln.

There was thunder and lightning  and awe and the sound of a horn and the people stood aside because they were all scared, all the people stepped back and only Moses climbed the mountain.

That’s exactly how it was when they received the Torah.

Then suddenly there was silence even the wind did not hum, the silence was so full and no bird chirped and even the angels did not break into song only God spoke and all the people received the Torah.

That’s exactly how it was when they received the Torah.

* In Hebrew, ‘keshekiblu

**Blue underscoring of refrain is from Jeffrey Schein, not Leah Naor

Three links below might enrich the study:

1) The Hebrew original of the poem: https://shironet.mako.co.il/artist?type=lyrics&lang=1&prfid=574&wrkid=5624

2) The Hebrew original put to a musical setting by the Israeli musician Ilanit:

3) A link to the notion of second naivety in the work of the French philosopher and theologian Paul Ricoeur: https://desertspiritpress.net/2018/03/07/second-naivete/  

I have a point of view here that is aligned with Ricoeur’s understanding of second naivety: To stand again at Sinai is to open ourselves to the power of myth and finding new meaning in the power of what happened at Sinai. It is not to suspend our critical sensibilities, but to move beyond them.  Ironically, the poem prepares us for that possibility by “teasing” us about the literalism of the event. Perhaps fittingly, the linked excerpt is from “desert spirit press.”  L’fi dati, one person’s perspective.


The Huppah Above the the Marriage of Experiential and Content Based Jewish Learning: A Fresh Conceptualization 

Exploring Adin Steinsaltz, Renate and Geoffrey Caine, and the Amphibious Jew

In this article I will be linking the understanding of the implications of the research in neuroscience for education explored by Caine and Caine with an insight I have amplified from Adin Steinsaltz, noted Jewish scholar of Talmud and Jewish mysticism (this insight was passed on to me by Rabbi Barbara Penzer).  I call this concept the amphibious Jew. Underlying the confluence of both these texts is a deep appreciation for the value of the immersive, water-like quality of the initial stages of curious and engaged learning.  In an article by Velvet Green, “Curiosity and the Desire for Truth”, she links this “curiosity” to the primal experience of birth:

I’ve often marveled at the basic miracle of birth. Every one of us, in our mother’s womb, was a real aquatic creature before we were born. We were surrounded by water . . . our lungs were folded up like a fan, not in use but getting ready. . . . When the child is born, no matter how long the mother labors, “birth” is practically instantaneous. Once the child’s head emerges, it must take its first breath; it’s now a land creature, not an aquatic one. . . . How does it happen? A most amazing chemical miracle takes place, starting during the labor of the mother.

Caine and Caine and the Brain

In Natural Learning in a Connected World (2011) the authors introduce us to the notion to their own understanding of the relationship between learning and doing. We know the brain moves along a perception-action continuum, always looking for information and connections to process, always threatened by the demon of abstraction stripped of sensory experience.  The three stages of the unfolding model are:

  • Relaxed Alertness
  • Orchestrated Immersion in Complex Experience
  • Active Processing and Reflection

Before examining each of the three steps, we take a look at the gestalt of the teaching.  Perhaps the parade example of utilizing this approach is the contrast Caine and Caine offer between traditional ways of teaching nutrition (learning a pre-established vocabulary and set of concepts) and the launch of their unit on nutrition.  Caine and Caine begin by having their students experience new foods and record the tastes and smells of the food.  Eventually curiosity leads them down the esophageal passageway into their stomachs, where their learning is then scaffolded by an exploration of various digital spaces and a set of guiding questions generated by the students.

Each of the three phrases also helps provide elegant midrash on the current emphasis on Jewish experiential learning.  Relaxed alertness reminds us that educational experience cannot effectively occur in a neurological vacuum.  Students can’t or shouldn’t be simply thrown into new experiences.   A culture and atmosphere of trust and engaged exploration needs to be created in the classroom.  Any hint of “fight or flight” will undermine the process.

The next phase – orchestrated immersion in complex experience – is demanding as well.   Orchestration already hints that the role of the teacher has been shifted from pedagogue to the orchestrator of educational experience, the guide on the side as it were.  Immersion is also critical.   There is no direct transfer of knowledge along a corridor of teaching.  The content always needs to be richer and deeper than the product the learner will ultimately develop.  Access to digital resources and new educational technologies of the kind described by Kolb (Learning First, Technology Second) is one of the best ways to initiate such orchestrated immersion.

Further, the experience needs to be richly complex.  Here is where ideas and concepts drawn from disciplined knowledge is critical.  Once immersed and engaged, the mind of the learner will beg to be stretched by new ideas and values.  No single experience will do.  Even the proverbial experience of being slaves in Egypt will need to have dimensions of nuance and challenge included in the learning challenge.  The brains attraction to paradox, challenge, and complexity needs to be honored.

Adin Steinsaltz and the Amphibious Jew

Adin Steinsaltz is a revered scholar of Talmud and Jewish mysticism, but also, importantly, a person with some background in biology. Steinsaltz once observed in a lecture given in Jerusalem in 1993:

All creatures live in water.  The difference between sea creatures and land creatures is that land animals draw the water into themselves.

Undoubtedly, Rabbi Steinsaltz is aware as he writes this of a classical Jewish midrash told by Rabbi Akiva.  The story begins with a conversation between a fish and a fox. The plot is clear. The fox would love for the fish to jump out of the pond becomes the fox’s supper. Why does the fish refuse?  Like the Jew in relationship to the living waters of Torah, the fish cannot exist outside of the water.

Returning to Steinsaltz’s epigram, there are two vital dimensions to all educational experience.  One is marine.  Engagement is the major trope of this work.  It points to the importance of immersive venues where one can experience Judaism naturally and organically.  It is aligned with much of what we have learned works in Jewish education in venues such as camp, Israel trips,  retreats and some forms of early childhood education.  Perhaps preeminently it is present in homes where Judaism is practiced from birth.

The other mode is mammalian, where Jews consciously journey to the house of their friends, their synagogues and communities to experience a very mindful Judaism that can guide them in creating spiritual connections as well as applying Jewish values to contemporary ethical dilemmas. Meaning-making is its major trope.

These two modes will remind many readers of two important voices in contemporary dialogues about experiential learning. The first is Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s notion of “flow”.  Initially, our richest educational experience has a marine-like quality of moving naturally through the medium that educates.  When “rich complexity” is available and “well-orchestrated”, the learner is so engaged with the learning that it is entirely focused and gripping.  It feels a little like the chorus of the Broadway song from Annie Get Your Gun – “doin what comes naturally.”

Eventually the orchestration of these experiences will begin to borrow more from the work of Lev Vygotsky.  As Kolb reminds us, it is the richer and more complex understanding of subject matter that matter most.  The notions of scaffolds is the tool of choice for projects as we move from spontaneous to scientific concepts and create the cognitive and valuational structures that give substance and form to the educational flow initiated in a marine fashion.  Wisely used, technology provides extraordinary tools for such extension and deepening of the learning. In a way this mirrors Vygotsky’s insights about the relationship between spontaneous and scientific concepts.  While in theory it is possible to precede top-down from the scientific to the spontaneous use of concepts, the process works best in the other direction, from bottom up.

In working its slow way upward, an everyday concept clears a path for the scientific concept and its downward development. It creates a series of structures necessary for the evolution of a concept’s more primitive, elementary aspects, which give it body and vitality. Scientific concepts, in turn, supply structures for the up­ward development of the child’s spontaneous concepts toward consciousness and deliberate use. (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 194)

Here is a picture that is linked to a question Jewish educators might ask as we create Jewish experiences for children:

Because each of these modes of Jewish existence has deep value and importance, it is critical that Jews have access to each.  Neither the mammalian, self-guiding Jew, nor the marine Jew for whom Judaism is as natural as a fish swimming in water, can stand alone.  We need to guide the next generation in becoming amphibious creatures who can alternately live in both land and water Jewish environments.  Just like Froggy:

I believe Caine and Caine suggest the kind of conditions that must be created for students as they move back and forth between marine and mammalian life, and become both marine Jews who move naturally through Jewish environments, and mammals who use their analytic powers to process complex Jewish experience.

Further, there are implications for curriculum designers, funders, and educational entrepreneurs who want to create the conditions for effective Jewish learning and experience.

To further that exploration, I formulate the following existence proofs of what it means to take Froggy seriously;

You know you are an educator embracing the concept of the amphibious Jew when_________:

–– as a Jewish educator, you quite naturally think about the opportunities in your school year to offer immersive Jewish experiences (summer ulpanim, retreats, etc).;

–– you appreciate both the experience of Jewish naturalness and normality in Israel and the kavana/intentionality required to make Jewish time and space in your North American Jewish life;

–– you make sure that each learning experiences you are creating of some element of marine and mammalian Jewish life in them;

––  you have examined the Jewish life-cycle for its natural rhythms of marine and mammalian possibilities (e.g., when do learners move into stages where the amphibious or mammalian mode is the best pathway to rich learning for this age /stage learner?);

–– you can reflect on your own biography as a Jewish learner and see both the marine and mammalian influences

––  you appreciate the learning of Hebrew as itself an example of the amphibious cycles (first being surrounded by the language, then learning its structures and tools, hearing, speaking, reading, and writing;

–– upon rereading the important chapter on Jewish education in Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization, you can understand why it might be retitled “Mordecai Kaplan’s Aquarium”

Lastly, the final exam for blossoming amphibious Jewish educator looks like this:  They read the famous Talmudic story contrasting the learning styles of Rabbi Hiya and Rabbi Hanina with creative indifference rather than sharp advocacy.  In the tale, Hanina is said to have restored the whole Torah through the power of his analytic and dialectic powers.  Hiya’s claim is that he would make sure the Torah is not forgotten in the first place by making his learning hands-on and empowering and linked to the rhythms of Jewish living. Resisting our impulse to lionize Hiya because Jewish education seems so impossibly dry and analytic, we would insist in the name of Froggy that both modes are critical –– and our job is to create creative synergy between them.