If you were to ask which of our teachers would say they are in the forefront of technological innovation, it wouldn’t likely be Rabbi/Dr. Aronson. I don’t think he’d describe himself as a “techie.”  Yet, Rabbi Aronson, a beloved Jewish history teacher and head of the Jewish history department at TCW, is proactively pioneering an important experiment that will help address a potential enrollment challenge.

If course enrollment is too low to justify the expense of hiring a teacher, what options enable us to continue to offer the breadth of courses that TanenbaumCHAT is known for?  This was the challenge that we faced this winter. Four grade 12 students at TCK wanted to take JEH 4HJ, a Jewish history research course. Enrollment wasn’t sufficient to run the course at TCK.  However, at TCW, 14 students expressed interest in the same course.

The solution:  connect the two campuses electronically to create a robust class of 18.  Doing so not only enables us to offer a broad array of courses, but, in the future, e-learning also may attract students who are motivated to learn in a new and revolutionary way.  As one parent said, “this is the future of education.”  In fact, research is now showing that personalized, collaborative and connected learning experiences enhance student engagement, which in turn drives student success.

Rabbi Aronson agreed to be the one to pilot a new method of  teaching.  For the first few weeks of the course in February when students select and refine their research topics, most of the work is individualized; the teacher offers direction and advice.  However, from March onward, students on both campuses meet three times a week, as any “regular” class would, but instead they do so using the Webex interface.  Webex is a video conferencing platform that offers screen sharing, archiving, and the ability to meet from the device of your choice.  During the course of the semester, students present a one-hour cross-campus seminar to the class, write an essay on the subject, keep a journal, and submit a final summative assignment.

In one of the first sessions of this semester-long course, Rabbi Aronson led a discussion about the Syrian refugees.  The entire class (those sitting at TCK and those sitting at TCW) watched and discussed a video about the work of ISRAID–Israelis assisting refugees coming off the boats in Greece.

Two factors are necessary:  1) the teacher must be willing to re-design his/her lessons to teach simultaneously remotely and locally; and 2) we need excellent tech support and reliable connectivity.  This course has been a success because we have both.  The beauty of having Rabbi Aronson as the volunteer pioneer is that he also understands that relationship-building is vital.  Rabbi Aronson met with the Kimel students on TCW Winter Activity day and has encouraged students to meet with him one-on-one to infuse the course with a more personal touch.

Rabbi Aronson offers a word of caution.  JEH 4HJ is a unique course that attracts a certain type of student because it is so student-driven.  Our next step, scheduled also for this year, is to pilot the same technology in more typical lecture- or discussion-based classes with a less selective group of students.

Author and entrepreneur Seth Godin once said, “Change almost never fails because it’s too early. It almost always fails because it’s too late.”  At TanenbaumCHAT, we choose to be early.

 

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Last week, I raised the question of whether or not it’s appropriate to teach morally problematic texts such as Psalm 137:9 (“happy is the one who takes hold of the enemies’ infants and dashes them against a rock”) which describes a vengeful wish of the psalmist.  I asked to guest teach a class of grade 11 students and see how they would react.

My feeling was that it’s better that students discuss problematic issues in an environment where they can avail themselves of a collective struggle for meaning than to confront these texts and historical episodes solo or, worse, be blind-sided in some hostile context.

When I introduced the text and the circumstances surrounding it (the murder this past summer and the wedding during winter break), the students first were shocked or incredulous that religious Jews could act this way and that our sacred tradition could ostensibly canonize a wish to do violence against children. The students grappled with the text and came to terms with the problematic verse by contextualizing it.  They understood the psalmist to be living at a time after the destruction of the first Temple and, in the words on one student, “writing with his emotions.”  “He was exaggerating,” noted another.  One student added, “people go through stages of mourning, one of which is anger.  The writer was angry and in pain.  He was lashing out.  He didn’t mean for his words to be taken literally.”

I added that the psalmist states ambiguously “happy is the one who grabs hold of infants…” without identifying the subject of the verb.  He does not say, for example, “happy is the person.” He, the psalmist, will not be the one to take vengeance; perhaps God will.  “What goes around comes around.”

Some students knew enough Tanach to evince other morally problematic texts.  They recognized, however, that Judaism today relies on an interpretive tradition, and in some inexplicable way, there are values that transcend the text that guide us and steer us away us from acting on verses like Psalm 137:9.

After I finished my guest lesson, I asked the students if they thought that it was appropriate for me to have taught them this psalm.  Initially, some said that it is appropriate only for students in older grades.  They felt it might not be so responsible to burst the naiveté of students in grades 9 and 10. Another challenged that view and said, “I hate being taught that Jews and Judaism are perfect. It’s not realistic.”  To this, one student said “some teachers are worried we’ll close the book (the Tanach) if we are exposed to problematic passages.  I think I’m more likely to open it.”

I don’t know if students are more likely to open the Tanach if they learn a more balanced perspective, but I do know that a balanced perspective will expose them to important enduring questions.  Grappling with these questions can be a source of joy and will help ensure they will be guardians of our tradition.

This past summer, a Palestinian family of three from a village called Duma was killed by a group of right wing Israeli extremists who threw a fire bomb into the Arab family’s home while they were asleep.  One of the victims was an infant.  The Israeli government and rabbinate condemned the act.  Six weeks ago, a group of friends of those right wing radicals held up a photo of the murdered baby at a Jewish wedding celebration in Jerusalem and violently raised knives, guns, and a firebomb as if celebrating the infant’s death.  It was a form of intimidation that, fortunately, the government and rabbinate condemned again.

A friend of mine wrote a blog about these two incidents suggesting that there’s a culture of intolerance in the right wing settler movement that is inciting this kind of violence.  The extremists believe that the State of Israel should be exclusively a state of the Jews.  The best way to achieve that goal is not through some negotiation or separation but by the expulsion of Arabs and perhaps through killing them.

In response to the blog, a Jewish reader cautioned my friend and said that one shouldn’t think that it is only the culture of the right wing extremists–and perhaps even their rabbis–that is fomenting this violence.  Our Tanach, which is the inheritance of all Jews, seems to encourage this kind of violence.  The reader cited Psalm 137.9 which states “Happy is the one who seizes your infants (yours being the Babylonians’ infants) and dashes them against the rocks.”

This Psalm is one that TanenbaumCHAT students know well because they study the first part of it in Grade 9 Jewish history.  However, usually the last verse, verse 9, is glossed over or omitted.  Instead, we focus only on the first verses which give a glimpse into the trauma felt by the Jews after the destruction of the first Temple.  The Psalm famously states “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept…If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning.”

My friend asked me if we, at TanenbaumCHAT, would ever teach verse 9.  Is it educationally sound to expose our students to a verse that seems to encourage revenge in a most cruel way against our enemies.  If we show our students this verse, will they be more likely to close the Tanach because it is ostensibly preaching intolerance, vengeance, and cruelty? Or are they more likely to open it because the entire Tanach is our heritage, not just the parts that resonate with our modern moral sensibilities?  How will students who are confronted with this verse make sense of it?  Bottom line, is this appropriate to teach to high school students?

 

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Anyone who has been in TCW recently will notice that classrooms, offices, and hallways are starting to seem to be brighter. In fact, they are.  We have embarked on a six-week process to replace all the lighting at TCW with more energy-efficient LED lights.

The impetus for the change emerged from our desire to optimize parents’ tuition dollars and steward natural resources better.  The benefits of the change are tangible.  First, LED lights last longer.  They have an expected lifespan of 100,000 hours, which is 11 years of continuous operation or 22 years of 50% operation.   Greater longevity means less maintenance, which reduces expenses.  As the operational life of the bulbs increase, the work involved to purchase, stock and change conventional light bulbs is dramatically reduced.

The second benefit is an energy efficiency of 80-90% when compared to traditional lighting.  Third, LED lights are free of toxic chemicals.  Most conventional fluorescent lighting bulbs contain a multitude of materials (e.g mercury) that are dangerous for the environment. LED lights are 100% recyclable, and will help reduce our carbon footprint by up to a third.  Finally, LED lights provide a more comfortable light, helping students and staff see better with less glare and eye strain.  They make for a brighter day.

Students have noticed the change.  Grade 12 student Laura Goldfarb wittily said, “In Rav Machtinger’s class, I learned that on the first day God said, ‘Let there be light’, but it wasn’t until the installation of the new LED lighting at TanenbaumCHAT that I truly understood what that meant. #LEDtherebelight”

Wondering why the lights seem bright?  First, we’ve chosen a cool white rather than the warm yellow you’re accustomed to seeing in the fluorescent bulbs.  Second, LEDs provide directional light.  Traditional bulbs emit light 360°, but only 30% of the light reaches the target area.  The rest is directed outwards and upwards.  LEDs emit light at a 110° pattern, so all the light is concentrated downwards.

Our estimated payback on this investment is just over two years.  That means that the first two years of immediate energy savings will offset our $160,000 investment.  Thereafter we will continue to pay close to $80,000 less each year than we have paid in the past and no longer consume thousands of kilowatts of energy.

A bright idea, no?

 

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