Friday, January 21, 2011

Staten Island & Security Reblogging

When deciding what to do this week in NYC, I was contemplating the Staten Island Ferry. I've done this with my kids a number of times. Its a cheap boat ride, with a great view of the Statue of Liberty. In warm weather, you can get out and stroll through battery park in lower Manhattan. In cold weather, you just stay on the boat for the round trip.

My Mom informed me that new security measures now prevent passengers from staying on board for the round trip! They throw you off, make you wander around, go through security and then re-board. In the freezing winter weather, that was a deal breaker.

And what is it for? Once you clear security, you're fine. Once again, I am flummoxed by the lack of sense in US security. This is especially the case when compared to security in Israel.

So, I was inspired to repost an early blog entry I wrote on this topic. Now I feel better. You can let me know what you think of it.

We had a great time at the American Museum of Natural History, by the way. Followed by a visit to my favorite store for multi-million year old souvenirs, which is located a block away from the museum.

And no useless security checks!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why am I blogging?

Now that my blog has passed its first birthday, I've been thinking about why I do it. Below is what I came up with. If you relate to any of these, you may want to start blogging as well. 
  1. Pressure relief: One of the only things that I envy about pulpit Rabbis is the weekly opportunity to share thoughts and insights. In the past I has more chances to speak in local shuls, and even in front of the high school. As those dried up, I still felt the need to express things going on in my busy mind. Blogging made sense. Although the audience would be small, quality is always more important than quantity.
  2. Just keep writing: On the other hand, I have not worked nearly enough on my writing. For some blogging is a “just get it down and send it out” sort of thing. But, believe it or not, I do edit. Its a no pressure way to work on skills.
  3. Conversation starter: It really is a nice way to get communication going with friends over interesting issues.
  4. For ourselves and our posterity: How cool would it be to have small essays by your parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents? We have journals, diaries and correspondence of so many in the past. Perhaps blogs will be our records for the future. Maybe I'm being too optimistic, but if this still exists in a few years it would be a cool record for them to peruse. Its a little Choni Ha'meagel I know, but there you go.
Anyway, if you are one of the inside few who read this, you have my thanks! I hope you keep reading as I keep writing.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Guest Post: Dara's acceptance speech

Yay, Dara! Last night the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland presented her with the Ratner-Goldberg Israel fellowship award! She sure busted a gut on the acceptance speech, and I asked her to send me a copy to post. It has so much to say about who she is and what we do.

Before I begin my personal remarks, I would like to acknowledge and congratulate
my fellow honorees:
Kate milgrom- temple emanu el – libbie braverman award
Johannah cross – agnon – Steiger family education grant
Chaya fixler- park synagogue-ratner Goldberg israel fellowship
To all of you, mazal tov.

In addition, I would like to express my appreciation and hakarat hatov to Maury
Greenberg, the awards committee and of course to the ratner and Goldberg families
for so generously sponsoring this fellowship. Thank you.

I want to give a shout out to my children for joining us tonight and for changing
into Shabbat clothes on a Sunday! Finally, a huge thank you to my husband
michael, for everything! But most recently, for putting up with me while I was
writing this speech! But on a serious note, I am so grateful to have him as my
partner in all we hold sacred; our teaching, our family, and in serving Hashem.

As I was preparing my speech for tonight, I took a step back and asked myself two
questions. Firstly, what would I say I need to bring to the table in order to succeed
in the classroom? And I answered; expertise in my subject matter, creativity,
classroom presence, good assessments…

Then I asked myself, but what do I need to bring into my classroom in order to
ensure that the learning that takes place in it is meaningful?

This is what I put on my list:
A desire to connect to each student as a unique individual, and the ability to
communicate that appreciation to every child. The commitment to making the
kids feel safe and secure enough to make the mistakes that are a natural part of the
learning process. I need the discipline to command respect as well as to be equally
respectful in return. To ensure that teaching is meaningful, I need to have the
passion to inspire my students to aspire. I need the drive to push my students to
stretch themselves, but also the restraint not to push too hard. I need to be mindful
of the fact that growing up is hard and that they are coming into my room with all
sorts of “stuff” on their minds. I must remember that if I don’t strive to achieve my
personal best, in what I say as well as in what I do, how can I expect the same of

And if that wasn’t enough for the “to do” list, there is also the added layer of
teaching Judaic Studies.

I remember the application process for my first teaching job. I was young,
idealistic, and ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work. I anticipated my
interviews with a mixture of excitement and nervousness. I replayed the answer to
the question I was sure they would ask me over and over again in my mind. Why
do you want to be a Judaic studies teacher, they would ask. I had many answers:
Because I love learning Torah and I want to share that love of Torah! And since I
appreciate living life in accordance with the Torah’s values so much that I want to
share my experience with Jewish kids! Plus, I really enjoy working with kids, and I
want to make a difference.

But no one asked. They were only interested in practical things, like what
kind of experience did I have and what certification I held. Of course, I am not
minimizing the importance of classroom management techniques and the necessity
for thoughtful pedagogy and effective lesson planning! As vital as those things are
to excellent teaching, they are not, at the end of the day, what makes teaching truly
meaningful. I felt so dejected when I finished that round of interviews. Where was
the idealism? Where was the sense of urgency about the mission?

Twenty one years have passed since then, and I have been fortunate and
privileged to have found a professional home in an institution that shares my
idealism and sense of mission; Fuchs Mizrachi School. In as much as these
values are at the core of my identity as an educator, I am also appreciative that
the JECC prioritizes these very same ideals, as the essay topic for this award
indicates: Describe how you, as an educator have influenced the Jewish identity
and education of your students.

At Fuchs Mizrachi School, we teach in classrooms that defy the physical
parameters of walls or a door. They are classrooms that defy forty minute periods
or semesters. When students walk into our classrooms, they walk into our hearts.

This relationship manifests itself in the time I spend with my current students in
my home or on our high school retreats. This relationship manifests itself when
an alumnus asks me to learn the laws of Jewish family purity with her before her
wedding or when alumni drop by, with spouses and children, when applicable, just
to catch up. The fact that these values and priorities are part of the very fabric of
our school is in large part to the credit of our administrators as well as to the high
standards that my fellow teachers hold themselves to.

It is of paramount importance to me as a Jewish educator to engage my
students in Judaism: in their relationship with G-d, in their commitment to the
Jewish people, in their connection to the land of Israel, and in their learning of
Jewish texts. I, along with my colleagues, am attentive to these goals as we design
the educational experience that our students receive.

I have the privilege of serving as the chair of the Chumash department
at FMS. I developed a four year curriculum that our staff uses based on the
approach to curriculum that is called Understanding by Design. Thanks to the
superb teaching and mentorship of the JECC’s Nechama Moskowitz, as well as
the commitment of an FMS mini cohort initiated by my husband Rabbi Michael
Unterberg, the project was realized. UBD is about uncovering the big ideas
of a discipline and about seeking relevance to “real life”. This model serves
wonderfully in connecting the students to the Torah as a living, breathing work
that impacts directly on their world view and forms the cornerstone of their Jewish

In addition to this, on a daily basis, we encourage our students to think
and inquire. I push my students to come up with their own theories and answers
to the very questions they formulate. I structure the flow of my Tanach classes
to be interactive and dynamic. Often, a student’s name will make the board next
to commentators like Rashi or Ramban, and we note all three approaches to a
question we had posed.

Another responsibility that I share at work is planning for our annual retreat.
For a few days, once a year, we have the opportunity to learn “informally”, and
it is wonderful. One of my favorite jobs on retreat is to prepare the Friday night
session. We break up into small groups and discuss topics like belief in G-d, why
be religious, relationships, and the like. Friday night is an intimate time and we
find ourselves talking to students for hours about their struggles and challenges as
well as their hopes and dreams. These are some of the most precious moments of
my year, and I believe of the students’ as well.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge and express appreciation for
how being a Jewish educator has influenced my own Jewish identity and how my
students have taught me. At times the goals and responsibilities of teaching can
feel daunting. There are times when you leave the classroom feeling like you’ve
missed the mark. There are nights when there are many lessons to prepare or so
many tests to grade. But ultimately, it is an honor to be a Jewish educator. We
encourage our students to be the best they can be, in terms of academics, but more
importantly in terms of being Jews. And in so doing, we too strive to the best we
can be; as educators and as Jews.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Melville's Metaphysics makes my morning

Well, I've finished my third day of jury duty, and the case is closed. I have no idea how long a typical trial runs, but it sure felt intense and fast to me. We found the accused innocent of two counts of burgelery and one count of safecracking, but guilty of one count of theft. Tomorrow I'm back in the jury pool, which seems way anti-climactic.

This was my first time called. The experience was draining, moving and exhilirating. I was amazed that a systerm which depends on the honesty, thoughtfulness and intelligence of citizens worked so well. At the end of the day, one of my fellow jurors said that if she is ever called into court, she hopes her jury deliberates as carefully and intellegently as we did. It made me deeply proud to be an American, for like the bajillionth time in my life. (I will miss that feeling, I am sure, when we make aliyah, God willing.)

The judge, Nancy McDonnell was a mensch and a scholar. Her manner was the perfect balance of proffesionalism and personal grace. She made everyone in the room feel respected, yet we also felt comfortable and at ease. I guess I set my hopes too low when meeting new people, because I was amazed by the decency of my fellow citizens on the jury with me. The terms "citizenship" and "duty" kept going through my mind, as I watched the care and consideration that they showed. Each of us was from such different backgrounds, but we worked together with respect, thouroghness and diligence.

The facts of the case are too depressing to write about here. Suffice it to say, I came home at night needing to kiss and hug my kids, and thanking God I did not grow up in the inner city. It obvious that we must not take our gifts from Hashem for granted, but it rarely strikes to my core as vicerally as it has this week. It made me concerned and sad, that none of us on the jury were really peers with the accused, if peer refers to race, education, neighborhood or economic background. But I believe he got as fair and just a verdict as we could possibly have given.

If it weren't for the guilt of missing so many days at work, I would have nothing but positive things to say about the experience.

I had thought that there would be a lot more dead time waiting around. So on Moday, figuring it would keep me busy, I started reading Moby Dick. Although I didnt get as far as I anticipated, I did get past Father Mapple's sermon. Right before that, I was uplifted by Ishmael's thought regarding mortality. It was powerful perspective on a weighty day.

"Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death.
 Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance.
 Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun    through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air.
 Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being.
In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me."

Herman Melville

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Who is looking at my blog in China?

Mizrachi staff unravel the secrets of the Universe

I sent my colleagues a pdf. with an correspondence from Marc Shapiro from a now defunct blog. It related to our ongoing discussion ongoing discussion of Torah and Science issues. (feel free to read it yourself by using the link above)

I thought that although Shapiro's tone was a bit too sharp to be called scholarly, it was well expressed and worth reading. I enjoyed the discussion that followed, and include it below. In it, I argue for consistent vs. hodgepodge philosophy.

(as an aside, I my few readers are not put off by my occasional posting of conversations. I mean for them to be helpful and enjoyable in a Kuzari or Socratic way. Let me know if I miss the mark)

From: Michael Naftali Unterberg
The argument made forcefully by Marc Shapiro

See files attached to this message (sent from GoodReader)

From: Noam Shapiro
nice- thanks

From: Adin Krohn
I like the article. However, why does he assume that the MO laity should take their cues from Professors/Bible scholars and not  their rabbinic leadership?

From: Michael Unterberg
If their Rabbinic leaders are MO, he feels that they should agree with the scholars. He is arguing that this is the only position that can be called modern. If their Rabbinic leadership disagrees, he is calling them chareidi.

I reminds me of the David berger anti-messiah rants. The feel harsh to me, but the logic is compelling.

From: Noam Shapiro
Just curious- Do you think there is a sizable percentage of MO rabbis who would agree with this? I think there might be more than we realize. (Just a hunch, can't prove it one way or another.) Probably still the minority, but it's a miut hamatzui...

From: Adin Krohn
I guess I feel that he seems to be blaming the laity when their (our?) leadership is leading them down this path.
I like your comaprison re: chabad.

From: Michael Unterberg
I actually kind of agree with Marc Shapiro. It may be definitional to being modern. I think most MO shuls have charedi Rabbis.

From: Adin Krohn
I feel there is a spectrum in terms of how people define modern orthodoxy. Being open to secular studies and culture is one aspect. I happen to feel that many MO rabbis accept evolution, and interpret breishit perek aleph as they will (reading science into it, non-literal, whatever), but when pushed on this type of issue become very uncomfortable. In other words, how far do you take this non-literal thing? Does that make them chareidi? Can you be "sort of modern-orthodox"? Like anything, defining yourself one way or the other is tested when taken to the extreme. I think rabbis and their communities should talk more about this stuff.
one more point: One "defense" I've heard about accepting the historical reality of the flood, etc. is that no (or very few) major mefarshim ever suggested it didn't actually happen (unlike maaseh breishit where many write that this isn't the literal story). But, Marc Shapiro would say, I assume, that given our scientific knowledge now, we would have to revisit the issue. The mefarshim weren't aware of the scientific info which compels us to take this approach. But had they been aware, they would agree.

From: Michael Unterberg
I guess the question is, do I stand or believe in anything in a consistent way? Or is my intellectual world a patchwork sort of Frankenstein hodgepodge?

I think that the Netziv's definition of Yashar in he intro to Breishit refers to the type of consistency where your beliefs follow all the way through to the end. Perhaps this consistency is not the most important characteristic of a religious personality, but I would hate to say that it doesn't matter.

The MO (or any other) label is not what matters to me. To me the question is, if I believe in science and Torah, what does that mean? How do I resolve the apparent contradiction?

The Rambam and Ra'avad argue over a similar issue at the end of Perek 5 of Hilchot Teshuva. That's where the Rambam explains that the reason that we see a paradox between God's foreknowledge and free-will is because as human's we cannot understand the Divine "mind".

The Ra'avad says that since that is not really an answer to the question, the Rambam would have been smarter not asking it in the first place. He argues that the Rambam was unwise to cause even momentary doubt in the reader by asking a complicated question without easy answer. Better to leave the reader in simple faith. If the reader hasn't noticed a paradox, why bring it up?

We can't know how the Rambam would have responded. But I have always guessed that he might not believe in "simple" faith. He could argue that not seeing the paradox is symptom of not understand what Divine foreknowledge or free-will are. Or both. To not be aware of the paradox indicates a Jew who believes in terms, but not what they mean. To the Rambam, that may not be true belief at all. Pointing out the question and philosophical challenge is therefore a necessary educational step in creating a Jew who believes in ideas, as opposed to slogans.

I would argue, that this orientation to the search for Truth, wether from within the Torah, outside the Torah, or in resolving perceived contradictions between the two, is the difining characteristic of MO. But even if it isn't, I think it is following in the footsteps of the Rambam.

Is doing less and leaving things in the zone of the uncomfortable confusion copping out? I'll let you decide.

As for the approach of "reading science into it", I think that Shatz has more than successfully defended that while such an approach is philosophically tenable, it just doesn't work. You would have to explain days and nights before the sun and moon, plants before sunlight, water above the sky, etc. etc. Keshem shemakablim schar al a derisha, mekablim schar al a perisha.


From: Noam Shapiro 
Date: Mon, Jan 3, 2011 at 4:48 AM

Well said, Michael. But isn't it sad that MO may come down to a search for EMET? In other words, shouldn't that be the defininf characteristic of every Jewish ideology? I find it sad that there are frum Jews that fear truth. If "chotamo shel haKadosh Baruch Hu Emet" - why should anyone fear truth? viAyen bidivrei FDR - "We have nothing to fear but..."

From: Michael Naftali Unterberg 
Date: Mon, Jan 3, 2011 at 8:38 AM
To: ""

I guess it is a different definition of truth being sought. I suppose the disagreement regards wether the chochma that rests with the goyim should be relevant to a Jew's search for Truth. MO considers all truth to be the context of the search, other ideologies confine the area of pursuit more narrowly.

I suppose a cynical way to read what I am saying is that it is not only fear but arrogance that narrows the search for truth in non-MO circles, but I would rather chalk it up to a sense of fidelity. 

We disagree with them bec we think that Hashem must be pursued using the broadest of means.

Sent from my iPad

From: Noam Shapiro 
Date: Mon, Jan 3, 2011 at 8:56 AM

I guess I just do not understand why you wouldn't use all faculties/forums available in order to achieve Yediat HaBorei

From: Michael Naftali Unterberg 
Date: Mon, Jan 3, 2011 at 9:44 AM
To: ""

I guess I understand but disagree. If your view of torah is that it is all encompassing, you see no need to go beyond it's borders.

I feel the need to defend the non-Torah u'Madda position because it was held by chachamim going back as far as we can tell. So has the other approach. Although from my perspective it seems wrong, I assume it must be chalked up to an elu ve'elu. 

Sent from my iPad