Kabbalah Centre’s Berg Sent Packing from Newsweek’s List of Top Rabbis

**UPDATE** – Somehow I missed the fact that Yehuda Berg is actually still on the list this year. He comes in at #37 (down from #14 last year). The Newsweek/Daily Beast gallery of the 50 Most Influential Rabbis shows Berg in a photo with Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. Amazing. Just amazing. (Hat tip to Rabbi Aaron Spiegel, CEO of Synagogue 3000, for pointing out my oversight)

When I read Newsweek magazine’s expose of the Kabbalah Centre and its questionable foundation for a children’s school in Malawi founded with millions of dollars from Madonna, the first thing I thought about was the annual Newsweek list of the top fifty American rabbis (technically: the most “influential” rabbis).

Rabbi Yehuda Berg, the son of the controversial founder of the Kabbalah Centre, has been listed among the top five in Newsweek’s annual list each year. And each year, after the Newsweek list is published, there are those who argue that Berg isn’t even actually an ordained rabbi and doesn’t belong on the list. Some claim that he’s running a cult that is Judaism’s version of Scientology. And then there are those who believe that Berg isn’t a religious figure at all, but rather a businessman running a corporation that sells everything from red strings and holy water to books and astrology sets.

I immediately found it curious that the same publication that would expose such criminal income tax schemes, questionable fundraising practices and laughable merchandise sales would put the mastermind behind it all high on its list of the top rabbis in the country.

Well, sure enough the new list of the fifty most influential rabbis was published yesterday and guess who’s not on the list. Anywhere. Somehow the face of the Kabbalah Centre has disappeared from the list after being in the top five in prior years. I suppose it would have raised eyebrows even more had Yehuda Berg remained on the list only a couple week’s after the “Madonna’s Kabbalah Disaster in Malawi” article appeared. However, it would have been helpful had Newsweek/Daily Beast issued a statement as to why Berg was not included in this year’s list. It could be argued that he’s still very influential, but perhaps Newsweek is no longer regarding him as a rabbi.

I’m hesitant to criticize anyone else’s religious beliefs, however, I don’t think that what the Kabbalah Centre is producing is actually a religion at all. In fact, it’s not even fully based on the teachings of Jewish mysticism. From the Newsweek article, it looks like the Kabbalah Centre is made up of businessmen who have figured out ways to swindle people out of money, including celebrities like Madonna, corporations like Gucci, regular people buying $72 candles, and the U.S. government. The Kabbalah Centre has become classified as a Church by the IRS and they run everything (cars, houses, vacation homes, etc.) through the corporation. Add to that the scam they seemed to have produced with the foundation for the Malawi school, and I’m sure there will be a full-scale investigation soon that will end the Kabbalah Centre as we know it and return Kabbalah to its esoteric roots in the hands of the Jewish scholars of mysticism.

The good news about this year’s Newsweek/Daily Beast list of the top rabbis, in addition to them removing Yehuda Berg, is that it includes some wonderful colleagues of mine. Even though fellow social media consultant Esther Kustanowitz refers to the list as “My Rabbi’s Better Than Your Rabbi,” it actually does include some of the most influential rabbis in the American Jewish community. I was excited to see my classmate Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum of the start-up minyan Kavana Seattle make the list this year. Additionally, it was great to see the inclusion of Rabbis David Wolpe, Rick Jacobs, Irwin Kula, Jill Jacobs, Ethan Tucker, Elie Kaunfer, Shai Held, Naomi Levy, Burt Visotzky, Avi Weiss and Steve Greenberg.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Making the Four Children Speak to Us

One of goals of the Passover seder is make this ancient, traditional ritual speak to us today. On Monday night, throughout the world, Jewish people will retell the story of the Exodus with the commentary of the Haggadah.

For me, the most poignant part of the seder ritual is the section describing four different individuals. These four children have been used as metaphors throughout the ages to show the varied personalities of humankind. They have been portrayed in creative ways through art and other media. Jay Michaelson recently compared the Four Children to characters on the hit TV show “Glee.”

Michaelson writes that ‘Glee is… among the most ‘out’ Jewish shows to grace the small screen. Like the show’s gay, disabled, multiethnic and differently sized kids, what’s interesting about its Jewish characters is how their difference marks them as ‘other,’ but, precisely as it does so, includes them in a very 2011 world in which difference is the one thing we all have in common. As it happens, the four Jewish characters in McKinley High School’s glee club map quite neatly onto the four children of the Passover Seder, and the way each of them performs his or her Jewishness shines a different light on American Jewish identity, and on the themes of the Passover holiday.”

A few years ago, I compared the Four Sons (recently changed to “Four Children” for egalitarian reasons) to four distinct male students I had taught over the years in various Hebrew School settings. I recognized that the descriptions of the Four Children resonate with different learning styles and abilities. I have changed the names of the students to protect their privacy.

Teaching to All: The Four Children in Our Classrooms

Several of my young students have made lasting impressions on me as a teacher. However, four of these students in particular, and specifically my interactions with them, have helped define me as a teacher and influenced my educational methodology.

During my second year of Rabbinical School, I was asked to teach a class of unruly seventh graders in a suburban New Jersey synagogue school. Out of the fifteen or so seventh graders, there was one over-achieving sixth grader. Ethan had been pushed up a grade because he consistently claimed boredom in his previous years of religious school. After the first rough month, I effectively established proper classroom management, but one student remained disruptive. Once I recognized that Ethan had to be challenged in more advanced ways than the other students did, we connected. His interests lay in grasping difficult Talmudic concepts and halakhic disputes. While the other students worked to make sense of the Hebrew language, Ethan spent class time deciphering pages of Talmud and then he would review them with me after class. To this day, we’re still teaching each other, as I spend a couple of hours at his home each week introducing him to the texts I’ve encountered in Rabbinical School.

Then there was Andrew. Andrew was the first student I met on my first day of teaching fourth grade afternoon religious school during my first year of college. I could tell instantly that he was what teachers would label as “the bad kid.” And sure enough, he spent his time in class testing me. It wasn’t a normal day in class if Andrew didn’t question the point of even attending Hebrew school at all. As a rookie teacher without much supervision, I made a ritual out of sending Andrew out of the class each time he misbehaved following numerous warnings. It was only after a frank discussion with him before class one day that I realized the problem was mine. I might have been teaching the right information, but I wasn’t teaching it in the right way for Andrew. That class was a watershed moment because from that day on, I approached Andrew differently as a learner, and he responded by changing his attitude in the classroom. Andrew was my star student the following year in fifth grade and in the subsequent sixth grade. Last year during Pesach, we had a chance to sit together, catch up, and study a little Torah. I took the opportunity to wish Andrew well as he prepared for his first year of college.

When I received a phone call asking if I would consider tutoring a young boy named Jonathan, I was given a stern warning from his mother. “Jonathan, well, he has a learning disability. It’s severe. You know, he’s just not a real smart kid and he couldn’t handle Hebrew school.” I accepted the challenge nevertheless, and discovered that Jonathan learns best when the material can be connected to his interests. We talked about Judaism in hockey terms – his favorite sport. I would ask Jonathan about a rule in professional hockey, and then, I would explain a rule in Judaism. And since he could only concentrate for small amounts of time, we would study the Hebrew alphabet or holidays or Jewish values, and then take a break and schmooze for a few minutes. The relationship developed, and after four years, I officiated at Jonathan’s Bar Mitzvah. The boy who was told he wouldn’t have a bar mitzvah because he’d never be able to read Hebrew led the congregation in a beautiful Havdallah service and taught us how he understands his role as a responsible member of the Jewish community.

Another student who made an impact on me as a teacher, perhaps without ever knowing that he did, was Kevin. Kevin was a fourth grade boy with autism whose parents requested that he be mainstreamed into religious school even if it just meant sitting in the back of the room and watching the other children learn. He rarely spoke, and when he did, it was never applicable to the class’s conversation. One day, as the other students worked on an art project, I handed Kevin some paper and some markers. I asked him to draw whatever he wanted. He put marker to paper and depicted the various themes of Rosh Hashanah – the exact topic the class had been discussing the week prior. Kevin didn’t, and indeed couldn’t, articulate that he understood the lesson until I asked him to respond in the way that best suited his learning style. His disability made him the student who just didn’t have the capacity to respond – or at least not in the normative way. K’neged arba’ah banim dibra haTorah – Four students, four very different types of learners. And four very different approaches that I, as a teacher, had to utilize.

Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard, defines seven types of intelligences. Some students, he explains, are more skilled with language, while others are more logical or spatially perceptive. Some learn by physically acting out new skills, and others are better listeners. Some learn better in groups, and others are more introspective. These are the multiple intelligences. It’s no secret that we each learn best in different ways, but the million-dollar question is how teachers can best teach to all students, to all learning styles. This is the central objective of my rabbinate – to be a Jewish educator who can reach each student in the most optimal way for that student to best comprehend the content knowledge. And it is a challenging objective. As a student of Gardner, I understand that I cannot value any one of the intelligences over another – and therein lays the challenge of meeting each student’s needs as a learner.

The debates among educators today focusing on the best practices for teaching are not new to us. In fact, we see them come alive each year at the Pesach Seder. The midrash of the arba’ah banim, the Four Children, presents four individuals who ask about the tradition in very different ways. The wise, the rebellious, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. They are four very different learners who need to be addressed as individuals. And the Rabbis of the Mishnah, in their wisdom, understood this well. In Mishnah Pesachim, they prepare us for the Seder by teaching u’lefi da’ato shel ben aviv melamdo – that parents are meant to share their Jewish identity with each child “according to his or her intelligence,” taking into account background, age, personality, attitude, and learning style. Perhaps without possessing the language that Gardner introduced to us over twenty years ago, the Rabbis still understood the concept of multiple intelligences.

We see this elaborated on in Pirkei Avot – the Teaching of the Sages. We learn about four types of students. Maher lishmo’a u’maher l’abed – quick to understand but quick to forget. Kashe lishmo’a v’kashe l’abed – one who understands with difficulty but seldom forgets. Maher lishmo’a v’kashe l’abed – quick to understand and seldom forgets much like our wise child at the Seder. And kashe lishmo’a u’maher l’abed – learning is difficult for this student and when knowledge is gained, it is not retained. Further, in Pirkei Avot, metaphors are attributed to these four learners: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sifter. These mishnayot describe four diverse learners, but they do not advise on how to best instruct them. The Haggadah addresses this need.

The Seder is a pre-packaged curriculum that considers the multiple intelligences. Dr. Ron Wolfson characterizes the Seder as “a talk-feast in four acts.” And throughout these four acts, a variety of teaching methods are presented, making the Seder a model for teachers. The Pesach Seder, as a system or process, demonstrates that we need to have a supply of pedagogical tools at our disposal when presenting information.

Throughout the evening and into the night, the Seder keeps our attention and that of the children. It does this through experiential learning, with songs and games, with show and tell, through interpretive text study, and by way of a forum for questions and dialogue. The Seder Plate, the eating of odd mixtures of food, the mnemonic devices, the telling and re-telling, and the catchy tunes are all ways to attract our varied learning styles. And if we want everyone at our Seder to truly feel a part of the Exodus from Egypt, as is the mitzvah, then it is incumbent upon us to provide the telling, the Haggadah, in a manner that allows everyone to receive the Tradition in the best way possible. We must draw on our creativity for this to work. And we must not give up. We must be persistent, telling the same story over and over in different ways until we get it right for every learner assembled in front of us.

Maimonides saw the need for this approach as well. He suggested ways to arouse the children who are too bored or cynical at the Seder. His words encourage us to invent our own provocations for these types of children. He understood the intention of the Rabbis in trying to stimulate inquiry and, perhaps before his time, Maimonides saw the need to motivate those who were apathetic at the Seder due to alternative styles or barriers to learning.

The complication about how to teach to the multiple intelligences is that there are more than just four types of learners. And there are more than just seven intelligences to consider. Each of us possesses characteristics of the Four Children. And we each respond best to different teaching techniques depending on the subject, depending on the environment, and depending on our mood. The Four Children provides a strategy for addressing four different aspects of each student.

Rashi, the Medieval French Biblical commentator, questions the placement of the Four Children text in the Haggadah. He explains that we are not likely to think that it is connected to the section preceding it, but it is. In fact, he reads the section Baruch Hamakom Baruch Hu right into the Four Children section, telling us that it is samuch – connected. Thus, Rashi’s understanding is that we are praising the Holy One for giving us the Torah and making it accessible to each of us, alluding to the characteristics of the Four Children. Reading Rashi with our understanding of the multiple intelligences, we, in effect, are thanking God that the Torah addresses different learning styles. I also understand this to mean that we are grateful for God’s gift of the Torah, but it is now up to us to figure out how best to teach it to our children and to others. Just as we are partners with God in creation, so too are we partners with God in education.

Being God’s partner means having to accept that there are those for whom barriers exist to learning due to a disability. This poses a challenge to both the learner and the teacher. In Judaism, we are empathetic to those for whom disabilities get in the way of learning. Some of our greatest leaders had disabilities. Both Yitzchak and Ya’akov suffered from blindness in old age. Moshe, our leader par excellence suffered from a speech impediment. And a handful of our rabbinic sages experienced disabilities that did not hold them back from being links in the chain of our Tradition.

Our Torah teaches us that we must not put an obstacle before the blind. This directive can be understood to mean that we must try to not teach in a manner in which the student will comprehend. We must teach so that the student will succeed. We must focus on their strengths rather than on their weaknesses or disabilities.

On the subject of special education, Rabbi Reuven Hammer wrote twenty-five years ago that “the responsibility of the Jewish community springs from the traditional Jewish emphasis upon the importance of education not only for the elite, but also for everyone.” We, as educators do not want to label children or pigeonhole them into broad categories as the Haggadah does, but we must identify their strengths as learners. And we must detect what barriers exist to learning for them, so we can work around those barriers and make the necessary connections for educational success.

Today, the Conservative Movement’s Solomon Schechter schools are addressing the growing need for special education by reaching out to those with exceptional learning styles and individual requirements. Camp Ramah’s Tikvah program is a national model for excellence in summer education for those with learning challenges. And a new organization is providing a wealth of special needs services for children with learning disabilities, creating a new, cutting-edge curriculum for Jewish day and synagogue schools.

MATAN co-founder Meredith Englander explained the goals of the curriculum in a recent article in the New York Jewish Week. “In each class, you are likely to have students who experience success through different modes of learning. This multi-leveled curriculum presents varied lessons, each coded with a special symbol indicating a particular learning style, such as tactile, experiential, kinesthetic, auditory or visual, providing different levels with different learning modes.”

The learner who is unable to phrase the right questions might possess a barrier to learning. It is up to us to help these learners in the she’eno yode’a lish’ol category construct the necessary questions. From the Haggadah, we learn that asking the right questions is an essential component of the learning process. The Four Questions that the youngest child at the Seder traditionally asks are also a pedagogical tool. They are spoon-fed to the child to precipitate dialogue and encourage question asking from all the participants at the Seder. But they are also used to teach the child who might not come up with questions on his or her own, that questioning is important and it is how we learn.

Wednesday night at your Seder, I encourage you to ask your guests about their own learning styles you would have seen that there exists a wide variety of approaches to learning at the table and that’s precisely why the Rabbis created the Seder in such a way. Think of your Seder as a classroom with a multiplicity of learning behaviors, with a wide-range of social and emotional paradigms. Just as educators cannot teach in one voice to the entire classroom and expect 100% reception, neither can we expect our Seder to be one-dimensional. We must teach to each individual in a unique way.

The Book of Proverbs advises chanoch lana’ar al pi darko – “Train a child according to his way.” This is the lesson I have learned as a Jewish educator over the past few years. While Ethan, Andrew, Jonathan, and Kevin may not always fit precisely in one of the Four Children categories of the Haggadah, they each, in their own way taught me about how they learn as individuals. They taught me how I must teach to be successful, always keeping in mind the learning needs of each individual student.

Education is a balancing act. We must embrace all of the learning styles represented by the arba’ah banim, and tailor our Haggadah, our telling of Jewish history, to each other’s intellectual capacity, attitude, and interests. Only then will we all have the merit of fulfilling the central mitzvah of this festival, b’chol dor vador chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi’Mitzrayim – that in every generation we must envision ourselves as having been part of the Exodus from Egypt. If the educational approach is personal, then our encounter with history will be a personal experience as well.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Justin Bieber Gets Crossed Off Bibi’s Calendar

Fame is an odd thing. Many world leaders, diplomats and American politicians would have a difficult time getting a private meeting with the prime minister of Israel. But a 17-year-old Canadian kid with blond hair and a talent for entertaining pre-teen girls has no problem getting face time with Benjamin Netanyahu. That is, until Justin Bieber refused to meet with children living in communities affected by Gaza rocket fire. So it sounds like the Bibi-Bieber Summit is off.

Bieber was slated to meet with PM Bibi Netanyahu tomorrow evening in Israel. Netanyahu’s advisers invited a group of children from communities near the Gaza border to attend the meeting with Bieber. In fact, last week these children got off their school bus just before it was hit by a Hamas rocket. A teen was critically wounded in the incident.

Israeli new website Haaretz is now reporting that Bieber, who’s been under constant camera fire from the Paparazzi in Israel, is refusing to meet the children, which led Netanyahu to cancel their meeting.

If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering not only how a 17-year-old kid gets a meeting with the Israeli prime minister, but also how he rebuffs the prime minister’s request for a PR moment.

I can only identify two of Bieber’s songs and those are the ones that my children sing around the house. However, I certainly understand the allure. These teen sensations pop up every few years. After all, to paraphrase Paul Simon: “It’s every generation throws a teen hero up the pop charts.” But there must be something more about this Justin Bieber. No matter how famous they became, I don’t think Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera ever had a peace summit with a foreign leader. And they certainly didn’t manage to get dis-invited the way Bieber just did.

While I don’t see Justin Bieber becoming the next Bono and jetting off to far away nations to lobby government leaders or address Congress, I do think Netanyahu knew what he was doing by setting up the meeting and then promptly canceling it. Bibi was going to use Bieber’s fame and cache among the world’s youth to both showcase Israel and demonstrate the realities of life in Israel amid rocket fire from Gaza. But if the young pop sensation didn’t want to play ball, the deal was off.

Bibi didn’t block out an hour from his busy schedule because he needed advice from Justin Bieber or because he wanted to look cool to Israeli youth by posing for photos with their teen idol. Bibi was exploiting Bieber’s fame for what’s known in Israel as hasbara — propaganda. If Bieber wasn’t willing, I’m sure Bibi can find someone else to do it.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Using Our Brain to Drive on Shabbat

Here is my recent post on the “Jewish Techs” blog at the Jewish Week:

Previously on the “Jewish Techs” blog, I discussed the technical halachic (Jewish legal) minutae surrounding the permissability of using the Amigo Shabbat Scooter from the Israeli-based Zomet Institute. The Shabbat Scooter is made by Michigan-based Amigo, founded by Allan Thieme, which began making the Jewish Sabbath-approved scooters six years ago.

But now there’s something even more impressive on the horizon that will further push Jewish legal scholars to determine if its use is acceptable for the Sabbath.

Engineers and futurists are now discussing a sitting vehicle which is driven solely with brain activity. Yes, you read that correctly: brain activity. But can it be used on Shabbat when observant Jews refrain from electricity and traditional forms of transportation.

The Jerusalem Post reports, “This intriguing thought was discussed on Thursday by Rabbi Dr. Dror Fixler, an electrooptics engineer at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, who was one of the speakers at Thursday’s 18th Torah and Science Conference of the Jerusalem College of Technology, Yeshiva University in Israel and BIU… Fixler showed a recently released clip of a ‘proof of concept’ vehicle that has a person inside who merely thinks of how to maneuver it. The vehicle drives itself safely, turning corners, slowing down and giving more gas. While this is ‘not something one should do at home,’ the Autonomos company successfully tested the proof-of-concept car a few months ago, said the BIU engineer.”

So how does this contraption work? A special cap, worn by the operator, contains 16 sensors and trains the car’s computer by examining the human brain’s electromagnetic signals. The operator of the vehicle simply points to the left and the right, which teaches his movements to the computer without speaking. Once the vehicle is trained, it can maneuver itself.

“Fixler said that the issue of the brain thinking and action – which could or could not be approved by rabbis as permissible Shabbat activity – could raise halachic arguments. Even though the person does not take any physical action to manipulate and move the car, just thinking about it could be forbidden on Shabbat… Fixler noted that even without seeing something work such as a remote control it could be argued that the tool was under the user’s control without actually being observed as doing something; it is much more complicated if only the brain is in control.”

But is merely thinking about something an act that could be deemed a violation of the Sabbath laws in Judaism? There are thirty-nine categories of actions that are forbidden on Shabbat, but one has to actually engage in them to be culpable. It is forbidden for a Jewish farmer to plow his field on Saturday afternoon, but it is fine if he just thinks about plowing his field. The question of course is what happens if his thinking about plowing actually instructs his plow to do the work.

There are certainly those who would argue that riding in any moving vehicle on the Sabbath is a violation of Jewish law. However, in the case of the Amigo scooter or this futuristic contraption controlled by thinking the user is most likely going to be a disabled individual. In those cases, most authorities would likely issue a heter (religious exeption to the rule) so that individual could travel to the synagogue to be with the community on the Sabbath.

There are some very impressive scientific and technological inventions on the way that will further cause religious debate. These are innovations that our forebearers could have never predicted generations ago. It will be interesting to see how these rulings take shape and to what extent the halachic decisors try to fully understand the technological advancements and their implications for our community.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller