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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Where Else?

Really, where else could you go into the local pet shop 2 weeks before Pesach and ask for kosher-for-Pesach dog and cat food....and have the staff know exactly what you're talking about, have it in stock and deliver it in a few hours? 

While I was there I also saw bags of kosher-for-peasch bird food in stock, though my brother once told me that bird food is basically kosher for pesach anyway, though only for kitniyot-eating birds......

A few minutes later, while walking down the street I heard singing in the local Change (foreign currency exchange) store....someone was celebrating and a bunch of men were circling in the shop, dancing and singing, with a dabukka (drum) playing.

All in a day's walk through town.



Tuesday, March 18, 2014

School Days



I spent close to an hour today discussing the local education system with a friend. We have kids who are more or less the same age and went to, pretty much, the same schools. In general, our kids didn't have the best educational experiences.

I have a friend who says that, as children of olim, our kids were always looked upon as different by the school staffs. I'm not convinced that that's true, but I do wonder if people like ourselves who made aliyah aren't a bit unconventional, and our kids inherited that streak of unconventionality from us -- a trait that is not appreciated by most educators.

I do know that my youngest, who is almost 18 (she's in 11th grade now because she repeated kindergarten) goes to school infrequently and, from what she tells me, doesn't spend much time in the classroom even while she's in the school building. One wonders whether there isn't a better way.

Some friends in the States told me about a new program that's been noted for its innovative approach to improving elementary, middle and high schools. The program, called the System for Teacher and Student Advancement -- TAP -- is, my friends tell me, making a significant difference in schools located in varying socio-economic neighborhoods. TAP aims to encourage both teachers and administrators to work together with the goal of improving teaching, enhancing communications within the school, building inter-staff relationships and increasing student performance through fundamental changes in the way that teachers interact with their colleagues and relate to their job. 

TAP is only implemented in schools that apply to the program. TAP administrators believe that teachers themselves must identify their weaknesses and request assistance in order for the program to function properly. TAP is the brainchild of education reformer Lowell Milken who pioneered the program and  now oversees the system's implementation. TAP is being adopted by a growing number of schools throughout the nation.

The Milken Family Foundation is recognized as an institution that "pushes the envelope." It has created effective tools that allow school staff  to develop teaching skills in a positive atmosphere of mutual cooperation. 

TAP is supported and monitored by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching. NIET sees TAP as a comprehensive school reform system that has the power to provide opportunities for teachers to advance their careers, obtain tools for their professional growth and expand their skills in instructionally focused accountability. Competitive compensation is also a key component of the TAP system.

TAP's goals involve guiding teachers to cultivate the potential of each student by successfully developing and nurturing each child's knowledge, skills and experiences. When combined, these elements enable students to succeed academically and prepare to move into the real world of work or advanced study. The ultimate objective of TAP involves increasing educational productivity and leading students in a direction that will allow them to function as productive and contributing members of society. 

When TAP moves into a school it immediately begins to build a community of teachers, administrators and other education professionals who unite to create a positive learning environment for both the students and staff. TAP funds are made available to schools when the administration commits to reward successful teachers through bonus payments and career advancement. Teacher-peer mentoring programs in which team planning sessions enable less effective teachers to utilize the talents and knowledge of their more effective colleagues are an important component of TAP. 

TAP professionals evaluate the performance of schools which receive TAP funds and guidance. Teachers of classes in which scholastic success is demonstrated receive rewards of professional advancement and pay bonuses.

There will always be new ideas in the education field and some will be more successful than others. The TAP concept appeals to be because the program is based on evaluating a school and its teachers through empirical results. I don't see any reason that we can't try such a program in this part of the world.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Purim 2014 Safed

Purim is always a bit of a "not really here and not really there" holiday for me. I enjoy it, anticipate it and then, when it comes, end the day with a little bit of .....really Purim? That was it?

Part of the ambivalence is that I no longer have young kids at home to dress up and send out with gift packages. I'm never even sure whether anyone will show up for the seudah, though I did defrost some hamburger meat for and am looking forward to a few guests.

Could also be that I'm not a drinker (a few glasses of anything alcoholic just puts me to sleep, so...what's the point?). I wandered around last night and found a few people passing around a few joints....maybe that's the solution? Not for me -- I'm a little too stoodgy or that.

Oh well, maybe I'll find a good movie and treat myself to a quiet and relaxing day. Meantime, here are some pics of the local scene.

megilla reading at the House of Love and Prayer

megilla reading

synagogue megilla reading

house of love and prayer

Kikar HaMeginim, Purim 2014

old city street, purim 2014

some local boys, getting into the spirit


parents and their little lion

central square, Safed

bike rider

chillin'

purim walk

locals

just headin' out to the grocery store




Thursday, February 27, 2014

What am I Doing at 3:00a.m. on Thursday Mornings?



The costumes line the streets and Purim is in the air. It's really one of my favorite holidays, made more so by the preparations for our community's traditional English-speaker's Tzfat PurimSphiel. I excitedly anticipate the unique mishloach manot that my Sepharadi neighbors send -- their homemade Moroccan Purim challahs, orange-flavored donuts, muffletot  and sambusks are a highlight of the holiday.  I make my own strawberry jam, since spring is strawberry-time in Israel (wash and crush 2 kilos of strawberries, add a tiny bit of sugar and let it simmer for several hours on the stove till it turns into a jam) so that I can present my neighbors with strawberry hamantashen.

For the last few years I've been teaching about Judaism and Israel to 6th and 7th grade students at American Hebrew schools. Jewish schools are increasing their elearning activities and even Jewish Educator Awards are noting elearning in their award presentations. 

Our online classes include a variety of frameworks, for homeschooled kids, kids who live in areas in which they don't have access to a local synagogue/temple school  and students who meet in their local temple or synagogue afternoon program and participate in together with their peers. These lessons vary: we discuss different aspects of Judaism, contemporary Jewish issues, Israel and the background and reasons for many of our  Jewish traditions. It's important to me to create lessons that incorporate current events or upcoming holidays  so that the content will be meaningful to the students.

Last year I tried to find some content that would make Purim more relevant to these students. The kids were aware that I live in Tzfat and they had wanted me to explain kabbalah. As Purim approached I decided to present a lesson that would explore the Purim holiday in the light of kabbalistic teachings while challenging them to dig into the hidden meanings of Purim and connect the holiday to the concept of Tikkun Olam.

Purim wasn't familiar to most of the kids so we started out with an overview of Purim,  told to one of Ari Lesser's raps. The kids got quite a kick out of that. From there we moved into explaining  Tikkun Olam -- the kabbalistic view of Repairing the World -- and then connected it to our mandate to protect our environment.

Our lesson specifically focused on Esther. Who was Esther? Why is she remembered as a great Jewish woman? Why did God expect her to save the Jewish people?

Esther was a young, simple woman who had been thrust into a bewildering situation. The king had chosen her as the woman that he wanted to become his future queen -- a job that Esther did not pursue or want. However Esther's cousin/uncle/guardian Mordechai encouraged Esther to accept the position. He believed that God had a hidden reason for placing her in this situation. Esther wasn't obligated to accept the post but she agreed to do so because she was prepared to go beyond herself for the greater good.

According to Judaism, each of us is the guardian of our environment. God didn't instruct man to protect the planet because He was lacking for alternatives -- according to Judaism, man is the earth's sole creature who has the ability to restrain his natural inclinations for the sake of a greater good. Whenever one of us pushes ourselves to compost, recycle, clean trash, reduce energy bills, use public transportation, plant trees or take steps to reduce our carbon footprint, we follow Esther's lead. That was the message that I wanted the students to absorb.

As the class progressed we used voice recording and PPT presentation tools to develop the students' understandings of how Esther's place in history evolved. Esther wasn't great because she acted virtuously. The significance of her actions lay in that fact that she was willing to step out of her comfort zone and stand up for what was right.

The class then returned to the main focus of Purim -- as a holiday of hidden miracles and we started to discuss climatic changes. These changes seem frightening on the surface, but they might, in fact, be hidden miracles. We don't know what God's plan is. Perhaps His plan includes creating a climate in which certain species will evolve or maybe climactic change is His wake-up call to tel us to become more cognizant, more involved and more pro-active in safe-guarding our planet.

We concluded the lesson by sharing a linoboard in which the students collaborated regarding their ideas about the things that each of us can do to "be an Esther." The kids' had numerous ideas of things that we can all do to help reduce our carbon footprint.

To conclude the lesson we reviewed the mystical relationship between Purim and "Hidden Miracles. God's name is never mentioned in the Megilla -- commentators have debated this omission for thousands of years. So we related this omission to the idea of hidden miracles. What does God expect us to do before He steps in? This is a particularly important lesson to consider as we think about our responsibilities to our environment.







Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dan L'Kav Z'chut

Dan L'Kav Z'chut.

It means, basically, giving the benefit of the doubt but it actually means more than that -- when you dan l'kav z'chut you see the good in something.

I used to have a neighbor who was a world expert in dan l'kav z'chut. No matter what anyone did, she would find an excuse for their bad behavior or a way to mitigate something that they'd done.

"They must be having a hard day" she would say. Or "he didn't really mean what he said" or "she'll wake up tomorrow and everything will look different."

Whenever I think of the concept of dan l'kav zchut, I think of this wonderful woman. She died in her 40s of brain cancer. Yes, I know that you're not supposed to say The Word -- you're supposed to say "The Illness" or something like that. But .... whatever. She had cancer and if there was anyone who should have lived to be 120, just on pure goodness, it was her.

I always think of this neighbor whenever I notice how different people react to things. It really says a lot about a person. Someone who's overly critical is probably not someone who I want to spend a lot of time around anyway. On the other hand, someone who goes out of their way to see the best in a situation is someone who I want on my team.

I was thinking about this recently when a few of my recent guests left reviews about my guestroom. The truth is, I can usually tell who's going to leave a nice review and who's going to find things to pick apart, just based on the way that they interact with me and with the other people that they're traveling with.

The people who are happy, upbeat and generally thrilled with life are happy with the guestroom (which is, I fully admit, a simple room with simple amenities -- clean, bright and well cared for, but, by no means, luxurious). The people who have trouble smiling, I can always predict, will find something to complain about.

Same guestroom, same host (me), same location....but different outlooks on life.

I have an aunt whom everyone always called "the smiley one." From the time that I was young, I knew that i wanted to be like her. Lately, a few people have commented to me "you're always smiling." I take that as the biggest compliment.

I don't have a lot of goals in life but I hope that dan'ning l'kav z'chut will always be one of my traits. 

Totally Crazy Week

Well, what's a blog for if you can't kvell a bit? Here I am with my new granddaughter. No official name yet. Born Sunday night. First grandchild!  What a great feeling.

So aside from the fact that her parents were in the hospital for 4 days before she was born (the drs. wanted to induce but it didn't go very well, so they were just waiting around for something to happen) I've also got a wedding this week. My daughter Yochi and her hatan, Yoni, are getting married tomorrow evening.

How's that for a week of non-stop action?

My poor mother and her sister, neither of them exactly young (young in heart, yes) were held up in the airport in Philadelphia for over 24 hours while the plane was delayed and delayed and delayed. When my mother came for my brother's wedding 12 years ago, her luggage (as well as the luggage of my brothers, who were traveling with her) was lost for several days. There's something about my mother and Israeli weddings....

So it's a crazy week here. I have lots of work to do but can't concentrate...hence the post. Maybe a nap is a good idea...I've been up since 4:00a.m. 



Thursday, February 06, 2014

It's TIME

 

Since last May I've known that my daughter will be getting married in February. And about that time we were informed that my son and his wife would be expecting their first baby (my first grandchild) at approximately the same time. So you'd think that, after 7 months of anticipation, I wouldn't be as excited as I am. 

Ha!

Son and D-in-L are at the hospital now, as far as I know (either that or they went home and are sleeping....no one's answering my texts and, since I remember what labor's like, I don't want to call them) and I'm on spilkes. The wedding is next Thursday night and daughter yochi is on her way home to spend her last week on the homestead. And here I am, blogging. Why? Because I'm too excited to actually do any work. 

So, in lieu repeating how excited I am, I'll share a story that occurred to us last week on Shabbat. 

I have a small guestroom that I rent out whenever my own offspring aren't home. When guests come during the week I usually don't have much time to interact with them but for guests who come on Shabbat, I'm often able to invite them to a Shabbat meal with some other neighbors and friends where we can get to know each other in a relaxing atmosphere of food (good food, I'm told...I'm not an inspired cook but I do manage to put edible eats on the table) and good company. I've had some wonderful experiences and met some incredibly amazing people. 

In general however, even if I can't invite them myself for a meal, I try to arrange for them to have at least one Shabbat meal with a family in the community. In particular, I do this for non-religious people since
a. they generally don't have the background to organize themselves Shabbat hospitality
b. it's an opportunity to provide them with a Shabbat experience
Everyone tells me that they have a good time, so in addition to the mitzva, I feel good (don't forget, I couldn't do this mitzva if it weren't for my amazing neighbors who share the mitzva by inviting these guests).

Anyway, last week my guests, a mother and daughter who had booked ahead of time, told me that they were coming from Sweden.  I was in contact with the daughter whose emails indicated a good background in Shabbat so I figured that they were Jewish. It's always a little awkward to know whether non-Jewish visitors will feel comfortable at a Shabbat table so I was fairly certain that this mother and daughter would be at ease.

When they came, it turned out that they were actually from Poland -- just the daughter is presently living in Sweden. And not Jewish. So I could only hope that they would feel comfortable at my neighbors' and my Shabbat tables. 

On Friday night I took them to one of Tzfat's Carlebach shuls where they obviously enjoyed the dancing, singing and lively atmosphere. I introduced them to their hosts and hoped for the best. 

On Saturday they arrived at my Shabbat lunch, enthusiastic about their Friday night meal. During the course of the meal, with a group of neighbors and friends, the daughter shared with us that, due to all sorts of "incidents" and "coincidences" that occurred during her life, her mother suspects that the family is, in fact, Jewish -- one of the thousands of Jewish families that hid during the Holocaust and then covered up their Jewish identity after the war in order to survive in the anti-semetic Polish society. 

I don't remember all of the signs -- some of them involved eating a matza-like cracker at certain times of the year, no religious observances....strange in the strongly Catholic Polish countryside where the mother grew up, and a vague memory of the mother, as a child, hearing some of the people in the Polish town where she grew up telling her grandmother that "if things get bad, we'll hide you here" -- this in 1968 when anti-semetic government actions in Poland were peaking.

I've always been fascinated by the stories of people who discover their Jewish roots late in life -- especially in Poland, where so many children were hidden by Righteous Gentiles but then they, or their own children, only discovered their real ancestry many years later. 

This story has a long way to go for these women to determine the truth but the possibilities are staggering. Our Jewish identity is something that none of us should take for granted. 
  

Friday, January 31, 2014

eTeaching and eLearning

Ten months ago I started a course of homeopathy to see how it might treat my meninginoma -- a non-cancerous growth that impairs my vision. It's not dangerous but it has become annoying and since conventional medicine doesn't have anything to offer, I decided to try something alternative. So far homeopathy hasn't helped so I halted the treatments and yesterday, I enjoyed my first cup of coffee that I'd had since last March. So yes, the coffee buzz has been amazing. But my body isn't used to the caffeine and I was up for a good part of last night -- now I know how people who use speed must feel. Anyway, after finishing my Shabbat cooking I found myself looking for more information about online education which I've been involved with as a teacher for the Jerusalem EdTech Solutions program. I'm slowly learning how to navigate the online tools that you use for elearning but I was curious about the history of distance learning. Online learning began to gain popularity in the late '90s when Distance Learning Colleges started to offer opportunities for students to learn via the Internet. Traditional universities and colleges scoffed but within several years a number of degree programs were recognized by the United States Department of Education. By 2006 high schools started to include elearning in their curriculum. Today, not only does elearning span grades 1-12 but many schools invite sick kids to join their peers via video-conferencing tools while they're home and some classes are "flipping" -- students learn the material at home, online, and then come to school to complete the "homework" assignments in the classroom where the teacher is available to help. In addition, you can see entire school districts investing in ipads and other tablets so that the students can learn asynchronously at their own pace and in their own learning style. One interesting study was commissioned by the United States Department of Education. The Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices of Online Learning presents irrefutable data which shows that online learning is more effective than traditional face-to-face instruction. The study, published in 2007, didn't take into account today's multi-media and Web-based applications which have significantly improved the learning environment and scholastic results of students who learn either partially or fully online. School systems have been slow to embrace new online technology but nationwide, educaitional institutions are setting out to meet the new challenges of distance learning. College and even high-school students often complete some of their coursework online with increasing numbers of high schools "flipping" their classes altogether. As an online educator I've been following the progress of online education closely. Observing the middle school children that I teach shows me the possibilities that elearning engenders to allow students to work independently, explore the material via a variety of online tools and apps, complete assignments at a comfortable pace and collaborate with peers on assignments. All this creates a supportive, dynamic environment in which a student can get much more out of his or her coursework. The change in society's view of online education can be viewed in a number of ways. Ten years ago, the majority of the public discussion about elearning focused on the benefits versus the drawbacks of distance learning. Today, although there are still some commentators who focus on the problems that online learning may cause (reduced ability to interact face-to-face in a classroom setting, undue reliance on technology, lack of familiarity with traditional book learning, etc) the discussions in the education community have now shifted from whether to include online learning in the classroom to how to best facilitate elearning. Many schools offer online courses but have done little to change their basic model of education. It's clear thought that the times are changing...and quickly. School districts that wish to raise scores, lower costs and prepare their students to compete in the modern economy are adding more distance learning opportunities to their schedules. Teacher-training programs now include mandatory elearning components in their training programs. Teacher awards, including the Lowell Milken Educators Awards, the Elgin Heinz Outstanding Teacher Award, the Pearson Teaching Awards and the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards now examine a teacher's elearning strategies when they determine their prize recipients. Online learning is a natural fit for homeschooling families. Recent studies estimate that the homeschooling population is increasing at the rate of approximately 7-15% every year. Lesson plans and online materials help homeschooling parents and support groups identify and implement both core curriculum studies and extra-curricular activities. I believe that my own online classes are dynamic and highly interactive. The students report that they enjoy the classes and are learning a great deal. At the same time however, my own daughter, who attends a "traditional" school, is in an environment which doesn't see the value of online learning. Sometimes I feel like screaming in frustration as she reports that her school day was "boring, boring, boring." Distance learning may not be introduced in her school in time to provide her with a more engaging school experience but I believe that it will, hopefully, be there for the next generation.