Why Jewish Summer Camp Remains Hot Investment for Donors

Professor Arnold Eisen, a scholar of American Judaism and the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, proclaimed, “Nothing I do to build Jewish life, Jewish education, or the Jewish community is more important than getting more kids to Jewish camps.”

Those are strong words from the ivory tower and quite the endorsement of Jewish summer camp. But Eisen wasn’t the only head of a major Jewish academic institution who lauded Jewish summer camping at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s recent Leaders Assembly. He shared the stage with Richard Joel and Rabbi David Ellenson, the presidents of the Orthodox and Reform academies respectively, who both agreed that the answer to Jewish continuity can be found at summer camp.

All three academicians extolled the virtues of the summer camp experience for young Jewish children who seamlessly go from overnight hiking and canoe trips to Friday evening Shabbat services by the lake. The leaders of Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Hebrew Union College took turns standing in front of 400 Jewish camping leaders at the FJC gathering – from camp directors to donors – to explain how their denomination would help to grow the Jewish camping phenomenon in the coming years. These schools train Jewish educators – most of whom discovered or strengthened their Jewish identity at summer camp – and with a $45 million investment from the Jim Joseph Foundation (divided among the three institutions) they will be able to prepare more young people who wish to work in the informal Jewish educational field of Jewish camping.

With over $90 million of philanthropic contributions coming through the FJC since its founding 13 years ago to benefit Jewish camping, it is clear that this is where donors are investing the most capital in what has become known as “Jewish continuity.”

Approximately 72,000 Jewish children currently attend a Jewish summer camp. The statistics show that the Jewish summer camp experience has a tremendous effect on children and their Jewish identity. A recent study by the renowned sociologist Steven M. Cohen commissioned by the FJC shows that Jewish campers grow up to be connected to Jewish life and identify proudly within the Jewish community as adults. “The analysis indicates that they bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat candle lighting to using Jewish websites, and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity,” Cohen concludes in the study. “Secondly, they bring an increased inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel.”

Most Jewish summer camps are nonprofits and, historically, have not been able to compete with the lavish facilities and stellar sports programs at the privately owned for-profit camps. But that is changing. Over the past decade the hottest cause for major philanthropists in the Jewish community has been funding the growth of Jewish summer camps, which means seeding new camps and ensuring there are ample need-based scholarships to afford all young Jewish children the ability to experience the magic of camp.

Camp leaders have long recognized that a main reason more young people don’t make Jewish camping part of their annual summer experience has been because they choose to focus on one interest like drama or a particular sport and seek out camps that specialize in those activities. FJC has put its attention into funding such specialty camps that concentrate on one main interest category but also infuse the Jewish magic for which Jewish camps have been known. FJC was able to open five new camps in 2010 as a result of the first Specialty Camps Incubator – based on a business incubator model – and now the second wave of that program has been launched resulting from the $8.6 million investment by the AVI CHAI Foundation together with the Jim Joseph Foundation.

There seems to be something inherently Jewish about summer camp. Indeed, when Jewish adults gather the conversation inevitably turns to Jewish camp memories filled with nostalgia. When two adult Jews meet for the first time, the game of “Jewish Geography” ensues and “Which camp did you go to?” and “Did you know so-and-so who went to that camp?” are the unavoidable questions.

As Eisen has written about Jewish summer camp, “For once in these kids’ lives, Jewishness is not something they are or do off to the side of life, in Hebrew school or synagogue. It is not a subject for debate but simply there, taken for granted, a part of what happens 24/7.”

No matter what the activity – from baseball and boating to crafts and campfires – the social aspects of Jewish camp all play out in a constant Jewish milieu. The benefits of those summer experiences are reaped over the course of a lifetime for the Jewish individual, and in turn for the Jewish community as well. Spring is upon us and we are now focused on Passover, but thousands of young Jewish children are already counting the days until school vacation and their own exodus to the freedom of another memorable summer at Jewish camp.

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

Jewish Summer Camp and Helicopter Parents

Originally published on JTA.org

Parents find new benefit to Jewish camp: Freedom from themselves

When she took the stage recently before an audience of 400 Jewish camping enthusiasts, Lenore Skenazy wasted no time in addressing why she is known as “America’s Worst Mom.”

The author of a 2008 column in The New York Times describing how she let her 9-year-old son ride the subway home alone just to see if he could do it, Skenazy has been the subject of sharp criticism for her parenting philosophy. But Skenazy is fighting back, waging war against what she describes as overzealous and anxiety-ridden helicopter parents who hover over their children rather than letting them be “free-range kids,” affording them the freedom to make mistakes.

She even wrote a book on the subject: “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.”

Lenore Skenazy at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly

“Sending your kids to camp is a fantastic way to give kids back their freedom,” Skenazy said at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s recent Leaders Assembly in this central New Jersey city. “Homesickness is a good thing. It shows they appreciate their home. So, thank God for camp.”

Summer camp has emerged as one of the most promising tools in the struggle to ensure Jewish continuity in an era when Jews face more choice and fewer barriers to assimilation. A recent study by the sociologist Steven M. Cohen commissioned by the FJC shows that campers grow up to be connected to Jewish life and identify proudly within the Jewish community as adults.

“The analysis indicates that they bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat candle lighting to using Jewish websites, and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity,” Cohen concludes in the study. “Secondly, they bring an increased inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel.”

Since its launch 13 years ago, the foundation has raised approximately $90 million to strengthen Jewish camps and, more recently, to encourage the growth of so-called Jewish specialty camps — those that focus on sports, art or outdoor adventures — in an attempt to siphon off some of the Jewish campers who might be drawn to non-Jewish camps focusing on specialty areas.

But the focus on identity building has obscured what some say is another, less-touted benefit of the camp experience that should also be a draw for Jewish parents: affording their kids a measure of freedom from intensive parenting.

“Kids go to camp and gain independence,” said Nancy Lublin, the founder of the nonprofits Dress for Success and DoSomething.org, and another speaker at the conference. “That’s why we need camp. It’s about the fun, tradition and independence. Go get dirty, get lice, sprain something. Parents will see that they don’t come home with their nose pierced, purple hair or worshiping the devil. It’s okay.”

Nancy Lublin of DoSomething.org addresses Jewish Summer Camp leaders

Helicopter parenting, a term used to refer to parents that hover over their children and pay exceedingly close attention to their every activity — sometimes to a degree that borders on smothering — is hardly a Jewish phenomenon. It has been the subject of numerous books and articles, and of late has sparked its own backlash. But Jewish parents, and particularly the much-maligned stereotypical Jewish mother, may be more susceptible to such impulses than most.

“We Jewish parents are definitely overprotective of our kids, and it’s tough to send them to overnight camp,” Lublin said. “But we all know it’s the right thing to do. It’s just what Jews do.”

For some parents, however, summer camp may not be a cure-all. Parents still call and write their kids and, with the proliferation of new communications technologies, they can remain involved to a degree that parents of a previous generation were not.

“Even when the children are away at camp, the parents will still be hovering,” said Michael Salamon, a psychologist in New York who has fingered overparenting as one of the reasons behind the so-called shidduch crisis, in which a glut of young unmarried adults — mainly in the Orthodox community — struggle to find suitable mates.

“I met with parents in a recent session who were so overprotective of their child that it was hindering the child’s ability to perform well in school,” Salamon said. “They told me they felt it was important to send their child to camp this summer to encourage independence, but really what I noticed is that they were looking for a vacation for themselves. They work so hard at parenting that they need a break.”

For parents like these, summer camp is a way to loosen the reins a little but in a way that still feels relatively safe.

Stephanie Steiner of Springfield, N.J., describes her own parenting style as “somewhat overprotective.” Still, every summer she ships off her kids to Camp Harlam, a Reform movement camp in Pennsylvania. They’ve demonstrated more independence as a result, which makes the experience — and the expense — worth it.

“We feel very comfortable with the camp and who is running it and how it is run, so it makes it easier,” Steiner said. “The camp’s motto is ‘Where friends become family,’ and we know our kids are so happy at their home away from home.”

Whatever the benefits of Jewish camping, there’s little sign that enthusiasm for it is on the wane. The Jim Joseph Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation have put up $8.6 million in grant money to bring more Jewish children into the camping world by focusing on their specialized hobbies.

“Camp gives kids the permission to be themselves. Parents trust that camp is a positive place for building self-esteem and self-confidence,” said Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “Jewish camp brings that and an even stronger sense of community.”

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

Children and Technology: The Good, the Bad and the Dangerous

Versions of this appeared in the Detroit Jewish News and on the Savvy Auntie website

As our society becomes even more dependent on technology, we will have to continue adapting to the technology innovations that continue to amaze us. The constant advances in everything from mobile gadgets to our household appliances will force us to change the way we currently do everyday tasks. If you need help figuring out how to use any of the new technology, just ask your kids.

Joking aside, children adapt quickest to new technology because they don’t really have to adapt much. Swiping on an iPad screen, controlling the Xbox 360 Kinect videogame console through virtual reality, or starting the family’s washing machine from a mobile app seem to come naturally for children. In the same way that parents joked in the 1980s that they needed their children to program the VCR, today’s parents marvel at how comfortable their children are with new technology.

Children as young as four years old are using the Internet, mobile devices, and gaming consoles. In some cases this is a good thing, but there are certain risk factors that parents should be aware of. While technology can be used for positive educational purposes, there are also serious physical and psychological concerns.

A recent Nielson study finds that in households owning a tablet computer and with children under 12, 70% of children use the tablet. 77% of these children are playing games, while 57% use the tablet for educational purposes. The rest of the most common responses include 55% of these children using the tablet for entertainment purposes; 43% to watch television and/or movies; and 41% to keep the child occupied while at a restaurant or event.

Many parents report that letting their children use tablet computers like the iPad can be very helpful when waiting at the doctor’s office, on long car rides, and before the meal arrives at restaurants. There are also advantages to having children do their homework on the iPad. Julie Feldman of Farmington Hills, Michigan explains that her daughter Emily (a 4th grader at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit) is excited to come home and finish her advanced math homework on the iPad using the application Wowzers. Feldman, a registered dietician, also sees advantages in technology for children concerned about their nutrition. “My young clients are able to track their daily food intake with an app making it much easier to monitor what they eat.”

There are, however, concerns that some children are spending too much time in front of a digital screen. When children spend too many hours watching television, playing video games, surfing the Web, and using a tablet, they are likely not getting enough exercise or face-to-face social interaction. Dr. Daniel Klein, a children’s psychologist in Metro Detroit, says he sees many young patients who are spending too much time using technology by themselves and not enough time playing outside and interacting with their peers. He works with parents and provides guidance to help monitor their children’s computer and gaming activities. There are also fears that children will see things in video games or online that will have negative effects on their behavior and can lead to anxiety disorders, violent behavior, or hyperactivity.

Feldman believes that parents should determine what technology they allow their children to use based on the child’s maturity level. She gave her daughter a cell phone when she was 8-years-old, but understands that this might be too young for other children. “It’s very dependent on the child,” she says. “My daughter spends many hours at dance classes and needs to be able to communicate with us. Having a cell phone and being able to text us is anxiety reducing for her.” She also has become more cautious about her 3 ½-year-old son’s video gaming activity as she has noticed that he is acting out violent scenes and shooting with pretend guns after playing some realistic video games.

All parents should be aware of their children’s activity online and put monitoring software in place to ensure safe experiences. If a child is using a computer, parents should ensure that adult content does not come up in search results. Google and other popular search engines on the Web have SafeSearch features to filter adult content from search results. Violent scenes can also be avoided with such applications as NetNanny, which provides Internet controls.

In addition to psychological and emotional concerns, there are also physical dangers when children use technology. Dr. Daniel Rontal, an ENT at the Rontal-Akervall Clinic, notes that with the increased popularity of portable music devices among children comes an increased health risk to children’s ears. “Some children don’t realize that something is broken on their ear buds and they scratch their inner ears,” he cautions. “There is also the danger of noise induced hearing loss and that is something that isn’t even realized until years later. It won’t show up for 15-20 years, but we’re seeing more people with early hearing loss in their mid 30’s because of listening to music which is generally being played louder than it was in the 80s and 90s.”

“Kids in general feel that they’re bullet proof,” Rontal adds. “The white iPod ear buds just sit in the ear and those are okay, but the ones that go into the ear canal, called sound isolating headphones, can definitely cause infection and scratch the ear.”

Kidz Gear offers wired headphones for children designed specifically for the Apple iPod, iPhone and iPad. The Kidz Gear headphones feature unique KidzControl Volume Limiting Technology that provides a safe listening experience while helping to protect children’s hearing. This technology delivers a safe volume limited listening experience for children that is always on and limits the volume levels to 80dB and 90dB.

New technology helps us be more productive and improves our lives, but we have to learn to use it safely and in healthy ways. So too, as adults, we must be responsible and monitor the way our children utilize technology. In some cases, technology seems to be make things worse. For example, overuse of computers and mobile devices can curtail important interpersonal communication and can hinder children from developing the skills necessary to deal with others in real life.

There are real benefits to children using technology as well. Reports abound that demonstrate how technology is bolstering children’s learning experiences and complementing the education they receive in school. Some technology is even making it easier for children with developmental disabilities. The bottom line is that, like anything, there are positive and negative implications to the latest, greatest technology innovations. There are risks to children using technology without the proper supervision and moderation. The best thing that parents can do is become well trained in the technology their children are using so that they can monitor it best. That will ensure a positive, safe, and healthy technology experience for children.

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

Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Teens

When I was twelve-years-old I took part in a Joe Cornell dance class with just about every other Jewish teen my age in Metro Detroit to prepare for the bar and bat mitzvah circuit. When my mother was twelve she also learned to dance from Joe Cornell. It’s something of a Detroit tradition.

While Joe Cornell has been retired for many years, the company is still around (after more than fifty years) and has actually grown immeasurably over the past decade under the leadership of owners Steve Jasgur and his sister Becca Jasgur Schlussel. In addition to providing DJ services and dancers for bar and bat mitzvah parties, Joe Cornell still runs its “Learn to Dance” dance studio for the pre-bar and bat mitzvah crowd.

My own children are still too young to even be thinking about attending bar and bat mitzvahs, but I read with interest an article about a new program that Joe Cornell is running at local Hebrew Schools and day schools. Patch.com reported on Joe Cornell’s Mitzvah Circuit 101 gatherings, which teach b’nai mitzvah etiquette to teens. Attending bar and bat mitzvah services and parties requires a lot of social cues that many twelve- and thirteen-year-olds don’t yet possess or at least haven’t yet had to draw upon. I remember my parents teaching me the etiquette for responding to a bar or bat mitzvah invitation before attending my first one, but there are still many other aspects of good manners that these children (and they are still children) must learn.

“We were asked to speak to a group of students about how to behave, respond to invitations and socialize successfully and we jumped at the chance,” Jasgur said. “It was great fun – and the kids really got into the discussion of do’s and don’ts. Then, of course, we had to add an element of fun to the night, so we gave the group a taste of the kind of Joe Cornell fun they’ll see at b’nai mitzvah parties this year.”

“In preparation for the 7th-grade social scene, our dance program teaches 6th-graders social interaction and social responsibility,” Schlussel said. “This Mitzvah Circuit program is simply an extension for that 21st century cotillion-style preparation we specialize in. We all want our children to be gracious guests, but sometimes the lessons hit home more readily when conveyed by someone new.”

When I was a twenty-year-old youth group adviser I was asked to be on a panel that discussed teens’ behavior at bar and bat mitzvahs in front of an audience of parents. I remember thinking how ironic that was since it was only seven years earlier that I was one of the misbehaving teens at these parties. In recent years, however, I have certainly noticed that teens are better behaved at both b’nai mitzvah services and the parties that follow. I think it’s imperative that these middle schoolers are learning about the etiquette required at bar and bat mitzvahs as it will improve the experience for everyone, and I’m glad that Joe Cornell Entertainment has taken the lead on this.

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

Jewish Kids Get Detroit Tigers Fever

Detroit is enjoying a very exciting sports season this autumn. The Detroit Lions are heading into tonight’s Monday Night Football game against the Chicago Bears with a 4-0 record (their best since 1980) and the Detroit Tigers are in the American League Championship Series against the Texas Rangers. The Detroit Red Wings are undefeated so far this season. The University of Michigan football team is 6-0 and Michigan State University’s football team is 4-1 (undefeated in the Big Ten Conference) as the two teams face off against each other this weekend at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

After seeing David Craffey‘s creative photo going around Facebook of a little girl writing her alphabet on a chalkboard in which she writes the ‘D’ as the Olde English ‘D’ of the Detroit Tigers logo, I decided to create the Hebrew School version of the photo in which the Hebrew letter dalet becomes the iconic Detroit Tigers ‘D’. Here’s my attempt:

Inspired by David Craffey Design

Go Tigers!

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

Natalie Portman Gives Birth to a Baby Boy

Since I launched this blog in March 2003, no post has attracted as much attention as the one I titled simply: “Is Benjamin Millepied Jewish?” That post has received dozens more comments than this blog normally receives. And that simple question: “Is Benjamin Millepied Jewish?” has driven traffic to this blog in record numbers.

So, now that Natalie Portman has given birth to a baby boy I’m sure there will be new questions that arise in the public’s mind. As Benjamin Millepied and Natalie Portman welcome their son into this world, will they choose to have a brit milah (bris, ritual circumcision) for their baby son? What will his name be? Will Natalie Portman choose a Hebrew name for her son? Since she is of Israeli descent, will her son’s name be a common Israeli name?

When Natalie Portman releases the name of her baby, I’m sure people will still want more information. Since Ashkenazi Jewish custom dictates that babies are named after deceased relatives, the public will want to know who Natalie Portman’s son is named for. Also, there is no question that this baby was born Jewish because Natalie Portman is Jewish, so there will likely be an international discussion about whether Portman and Millepied will have a traditional bris ceremony on this new baby’s eighth day of life. With the debate over a ban on ritual circumcision currently taking place in San Francisco, I’m certain this celebrity birth will add fuel to that fire.

Finally, Natalie Portman has stated publicly that she plans to raise her child Jewish. Another high profile Jewish celebrity who is intermarried to a non-Jew but raising her child Jewish will add to the discussion about interfaith families. Benjamin Millepied could choose to convert to Judaism in the future, but if he doesn’t he will be in good company with other non-Jewish parents helping to raise Jewish children. In fact, organizations like the Jewish Outreach Institute and InterfaithFamily.com exist to help interfaith families who are giving their children a Jewish upbringing.

Mazel Tov to Natalie Portman and Benjamin Millepied on the birth of their son. For years we’ve watched Natalie Portman as she’s starred in movies and received award after award. Now, she’ll have a chance to shine as a Jewish mother. I’m betting that thirteen years from now, there will be a headline somewhere that reads “Natalie Portman’s son becomes a Bar Mitzvah.”

(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

Jewish Silly Bandz

It didn’t take long for me to notice that this summer’s fad was Silly Bandz, the colorful rubber bands in various shapes worn on kids’ wrists. Wherever I went, I saw campers and counselors at Camp Maas, Tamarack Camps‘ residential Jewish camp where I work as the agency’s rabbi, trading all sorts of rubber shapes, but sadly I didn’t see anything with a Jewish theme in the collections.

So I went to the Web to try to find the Jewish version of Silly Bandz and landed on Rabbi Moshe Rabin’s site, JewlyBandz.com. A Chabad rabbi in Florida who runs a girls’ seminary, Rabin tapped into the latest fad quickly. He’s not the only one who has created a Jewish version of Silly Bandz, but I like his educational approach to the product. I called Rabbi Rabin to let him know that I was glad he was using Silly Bandz for Jewish education. After speaking for a while, we realized that we each had many connections to Jewish youth who would enjoy adding Jewish Silly Bandz to their collection, but these connections didn’t overlap. I work predominantly with Jewish youth in the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism, while Rabin is an Orthodox Jewish educator and Chabad Lubavitch emissary.

Jewly Bandz has produced a symbolic selection of Jewish Silly Bandz in the thematic shapes of the Jewish holidays with each holiday represented in elastic shapes kids everywhere will wear with pride and look forward to sharing and trading with their friends. Rabbi Rabin told me, “When I saw children so excited to collect the latest bands, I knew there was an opportunity here to teach Torah in a fun way.”

Judaism in the 21st century needs to keep pace with the current trends. If kids are crazy about collecting Silly Bandz bracelets, I want to see a shofar bracelet on every Jewish child’s wrist in the month before Rosh Hashanah.

Many organizations, like synagogues and temples, Jewish camps, JCCs, Federations, and Chabad Houses, are using Jewly Bandz for fundraising too. There is free shipping for Jewly Bandz orders over $25 and if you enter my special code (“Rabbi Jason”) you will receive 20% off if the order is placed on the Jewly Bandz website before August 31.

Monies raised selling Jewly Bandz™ will be used to fund educational scholarships for Jewish children. To purchase JewlyBandz, visit www.jewlybandz.com.

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

Planting Trees at Summer Camp

In addition to providing kosher supervision for Camp Mass, a Jewish residential summer camp in Michigan run by Tamarack Camps, I also run several informal educational programs. One of my favorite programs is planting trees with the campers and their counselors. I wrote the following article about the importance of trees for the camp’s online newsletter:

Planting Trees

Shimon bar Yochai taught that “if you are holding a tree in your hand, and someone says that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the tree and then go and greet the Messiah.”
(Avot D’Rabbi Natan 31b)

Tonight, as I watched the Second Night Show, my mind focused on the beauty of trees. The entire camp gathered at the Zaks Amphitheatre as each village staff took to the stage to showcase their talents and demonstrate what makes their village special.. I thought of the thousands of trees on our vast camp acreage and how each tree has its own personality just like each village. I thought of the unique gifts that each camper will share this summer at camp and how each tree shares its own gifts with us.

At Tamarack, our campers and staff live on 1,500 beautiful acres of land dotted with trees as far as the eye can see. The campers remind me how important those trees are to our camp on a daily basis. Each village has a chance to plant a tree in one of our lush fields as a way to give back to camp. Before the digging begins, I ask the campers what trees provide for us. Oxygen, paper, fruits, nuts, shelter, shade, and wood for fires are some of the common responses I hear. Some campers have reminded us that chewing gum, medicines, maple syrup, and chocolate also come from trees.

In past years, each camper and counselor has planted an individual tree. This summer, however, as a true sign of community each village will be planting a big pine tree to serve as an enduring reminder of the magic of the summer of 2010. God willing, in the future, the campers will return to Tamarack with their own children to visit the tree they planted this summer.

After the campers have planted their village tree we gather in a circle and listen to the personal dedications. Everyone in the village – campers and staff – share the names of the individuals for whom they planted their tree. Some dedicate it to their parents, siblings, friends or pets. Others have planted the tree in memory of a beloved grandparent. Many campers have dedicated the tree to their counselor or their bunkmates. One camper dedicated his village tree to everyone at Tamarack.

After each camper fills out a keepsake tree certificate, we join together in the Shehechiyanu blessing, acknowledging how grateful we are to partner with God in making our camp look even more beautiful. This is truly a wonderful way for us to give back to our camp. The website of the Jewish National Fund is listed on the tree certificate so families can plant a matching tree in Israel when their camper returns home at the end of the session.

Just as the trees throughout our camp grow and blossom, may our hundreds of campers grow and blossom this summer and may we reap the wonderful gifts they give.

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

Technology and Summer Camp

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

Just about every summer camp today has policies in place regarding the use of technology by campers. Rules governing whether campers can bring their cell phones, iPods, digital readers, and smartphones to camp (and if so, when they can use them) have been part of ongoing discussions as new forms of technology are introduced into the marketplace.

The most important thing to remember about these rules is that they are being created by people (AKA, adults) who know far less about these gadgets than the young campers. And where there is a will to use these devices at summer camp, the campers will find a way to use them.

Marjorie Ingall, who wrote a wonderful parenting column in the Forward newspaper for many years under the pseudonym “The East Village Mamele,” argues for keeping kids unplugged at summer camp in Tablet Magazine. She writes:

The most significant difference between my kids and me, though, is that they can’t imagine being unwired. I showed them a picture of Gordon Gekko holding his then-super-futuristic cell phone in the movie Wall Street, and they asked if it was a giant walkie-talkie. Josie recently quizzed me about Superman: What was a phone booth, and how did he change clothes in it? When I tell her we had to stand up and walk over to the television to change the channel and that we only had telephones attached to walls, she stares at me as if I’m speaking Urdu. I showed her Atari’s Pong, the antiquated video game we played on my TV growing up; she thought I was playing a joke.

So, is today’s sleepaway camp—with its lake, trees, cabins, chadar ochel, and drama and crafts bungalows looking exactly as they did generations earlier—an artifact, an artificial construct belonging to an earlier time, like some New World version of a Roman Vishniac photo? Is it ridiculous to expect kids to give up their iPods, handheld computer games, Facebook, Twitter, IM? Can we really trap them in this historical setting, like bug-spray-scented, cell-phone-less flies in amber?

My answer: We not only can; we should. Kids need unplugging… [I]n the summer—the last vestige of carefree childhood in a high-pressure, high-connectivity world—kids should be forced to interact face-to-face with each other, with their counselors, and with a sylvan world. It’s one of the last great communal spaces for kids. Every camp has its own rules about the use of technology, of course. Some allow cell phones but let kids use them only right before Shabbat or right before bed. Others allow iPods in the bunk only. (In my day, at rest time, we were allowed our giant, awkward Walkmans that seemed the height of techie cool.) But whatever a camp’s written rules, compliance varies. One Jewish website is rife with whispered tales of texting in bathroom stalls.

A June 2008 article in TIME Magazine by Nancy Gibbs titled “The Meaning of Summer Camp” also lamented the use of cellphones in what is supposed to be a euphoric environment for children. She wrote, “So I applaud the effort of traditional camps to pull the plugs: the ACA found in a 2007 survey that at least 3 out of 4 camps make kids leave their gizmos at home. It probably tells us something that the resistance often comes not from the kids but from Mom and Dad. Parents have been known to pack off their children with two cell phones, so they can hand over one and still be able to sneak off and call. Camp expert Christopher Thurber reports that parents grill directors about why they can’t watch their kids’ activities from a webcam or reach them by BlackBerry. Services like CampMinder and Bunk1.com do let camps post news and pictures to ‘help our families to feel as if they are with us at camp,’ as a Texas camp owner puts it. But that just invites inquiry about why Johnny looks sad or how Jenny’s jeans got torn.”

The problem is that children today are already wired to be, well, wired. The know about connectivity. They own the latest, greatest gadgets. Asking them to be stripped of their iPods and cellphones before boarding the camp bus is like asking them to board the bus naked. And yet, there’s so much to be gained from experiencing a summer unplugged. A summer in which a child cannot text Mommy and Daddy after every skinned knee or breakup with the boy in Cabin 3.

There is a slippery slope in the question of just how unplugged campers should be at summer camp. After all, if campers of previous generations were allowed to pack their boom box, and then their Walkman cassette player, and then their portable CD players, shouldn’t it follow that today’s campers should be able to listen to their Apple iPod on their bed during rest hour?

And if they are allowed to bring an iPod, what about the Apple iTouch with WiFi capability? What if the iTouch is used to surf the Web and email the parents back home?

And if books are allowed at camp (and of course, they are!), what about an Amazon Kindle? Or how about the new Apple iPad? What if the iPad is used to text friends back home?

Of course, the children who go to a day camp can return home each night to plug into their technological universe, but they are missing out on so much that the overnight camping experience has to offer. While there is something quite cool about little kids living in tents and wood cabins in “the middle of nowhere” still being able to connect to those satellites floating in outer space in order to download the latest songs, it’s just not right.

Even if the technology is now available that allows campers to open their iPads and watch each pitch of the baseball game in real time while chatting with Dad, they should still have to do what I did — Listen to the late Ernie Harwell calling the game over the transistor radio that was buried under my pillow while I wrote my “old man” a letter the old fashioned way… with a pen and paper.

Because, well, that’s Summer Camp!

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