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Education Matters - One Head of School's reflections on education, Jewish education and the Jewish world

Combatting Hatred and Anti-Semitism
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

American society is changing. There has been an election-year surge in the number of anti-Semitic incidents and crimes that we have not seen in a decade. In fact though, the ADL reports that already in 2015, there was a 3% increase in overall incidents and a dramatic 50% increase in assaults, the most violent anti-Semitic category it tracks. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there has been a significant rise in hate crimes overall, with anti-immigrant incidents being the most prevalent. While the election year rhetoric clearly has had an impact, the statistics over a two-year period reflect a larger trend.

And this is not just occurring in rural communities or parts of the country with few Jews or minorities, it is happening in our community. Last week at the community forum held at CESJDS, Montgomery County officials shared that there has been a spike in the number of hate crimes in our local area. County Executive Ike Leggett and Police Chief Tom Manger condemned these acts and noted that they were incredulous that this is taking place in our community. A parent in one of our local public middle schools reported that anti-Semitic incidents are rampant in her child's school, which is located in Bethesda.

As I listened to the speakers and attendees at the event last week, I reflected that I have not experienced this level of hate and anti-Semitism in my lifetime. I may have been naïve (as some have expressed), or optimistic that the United States had essentially moved beyond the historical discrimination that Jewish communities have lived with for centuries. Today, I am much more clear-eyed that there is a very real threat to our community. To be sure, Jews as a whole remain safer, more well-organized as a community, and respected in American society than in any other country in the world outside Israel. The Jewish community is politically significant beyond our numbers and integrated into American society well ahead of most other minority groups, yet we must remain vigilant to the growing hatred and sentiments towards Jews and other minority groups.

As an educator, I wonder about the impact this environment has on students and whether the curriculum of schools and other educational settings is positioned to address the current reality. Jewish history and the lessons of Jews who lived in overtly hostile countries is an essential component for students. The value of studying history as a core subject is critical, and, unfortunately, few Jewish day schools have a significant scope and sequence in this area or a department dedicated to this discipline. At the same time, Jewish educators must consider how the learners we work with are prepared to address the current reality they face beyond the sacred and safe communities in our own schools. Are graduates prepared to face the onslaught of anti-Semitism on college campuses and are our students ready for the comments they may experience walking in their neighborhoods or when participating in activities in the larger community?

I, personally, am also committed to being more involved and vocal regarding all reports of racism, hate-speech, and anti-Semitism. I have signed onto more open letters and written my elected officials more often recently to respond to these events and to express my outrage when any leaders express views that are hateful or decline to forcefully condemn racism when it occurs. CESJDS has positioned itself as a leader in facilitating forums like the one we held last week to highlight and combat the threats to our community and other minority groups. I urge you to consider how you will respond too.

Follow Mitch on Twitter: @MitchMalkus

Can Broadway Musicals Help Us Engage Students and Children in Difficult Conversations?
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

I had the wonderful opportunity to see Dear Evan Hansen recently. This Broadway show depicts what happens after the title character, Evan, writes a letter to himself that falls into the hands of a school stoner and bully, Connor, who subsequently commits suicide. Evan, who exhibits high levels of anxiety and other spectrum-related social disorders, ends up generating a series of lies in the wake of Connor's death. A relationship develops between Evan and Connor's sister Zoe and Evan's actions and words go viral through social media. The show concludes with Evan having to decide whether to continue living a lie or face the consequences of his actions.

Beyond being a spectacular piece of musical theater, I was captivated as an educator that the writer would choose a musical as the vehicle to raise questions around teenage suicide and supporting students with significant social disorders. These topics are serious ones and not given to the blunt plot and character development that generally characterizes musicals. In discussing the show, I realized that, in fact, there have been a number of musicals in recent years that address weighty issues. One is Fun Home, that shares the overlapping stories of a dysfunctional family with a closeted gay father whose daughter reveals to him that she is a lesbian.

So why have the writers of these shows chosen to set their narratives to music? From my perspective, it is often easier to delve into extremely difficult topics when they are presented in a more digestible form. The musical nature of the shows invites the audience gently into the heavy subject. The lighter environment also enables the writers to interject humor into the scripts, disarming those who are watching at their own discomfort about such important topics. The implicit lesson is that life is filled with both serious and lighter moments, even in the most difficult situations it is okay to be amused. Last, because the shows feel more accessible, they easily open up the important discussions that will ensue during the post-theater conversations. The implicit message is that while the discussion may be serious, nevertheless, it is a conversation we can participate in.

Even today, a week removed from seeing Dear Evan Hansen, the show's themes resonate deeply for the work I do as an educator. In addition to the everyday experience of working with teens, the show confronted me with the hard reality that the world has become a difficult place for adolescents who often feel alone and who confront their emotional lives within the unforgiving social media "communities" that both distract and often confuse their lives. Just as the issues of social media demand new approaches to education, the medium of using musical shows to address the most pressing issues of the day teaches us that an unlikely method can be marshalled for teaching difficult subjects. I recommend that both educators and parents consider seeing these two musical shows to access a window into the harsh realities of teenage life and as an opportunity to consider the methods we use to engage the adolescents who are our children and students.

Follow Mitch on Twitter: @MitchMalkus

What has changed in schools in the 21st Century?
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

As we near the end of the calendar year, I have been thinking about and listening to conversations about what has changed in schools during the first 16 years of the 21st century.

In one conversation on this topic, educators shared that they have seen more efforts and realization within schools that learning should be more personal, that there is greater acknowledgement that learning happens outside the classroom and that this learning can be orchestrated for greater student benefit, that teachers have shifted to teach more about thinking and meta-cognition (understanding our own thought processes), and a move from teacher-driven lectures to collaborative learning between teachers and students and between students.

Another education website looks at why schools have changed to focusing on building the ability to learn instead of instruction designed to transfer existing bodies of knowledge, a broad set of basic skills versus knowledge-based credentials, asking students to use their knowledge, not just acquire it, and a major switch to explicating teaching intellectual skills such as analyzing, synthesizing, and critical thinking.

From my perspective we have seen three additional changes.

1) Technology has become an integral tool for learning in schools. Students now have access to far more knowledge with the click of a mouse and without leaving the classroom, they can access collective knowledge via the Internet. Technology also makes it easier to learn and has changed the nature of learning by facilitating communication between students and teachers, fostering increased engagement through online and interactive content, and enhancing the ways teachers and students share work.

2) Schools have also dramatically changed the way they work with a variety of learners. Inclusion has become an aspiration and a growing reality for students who struggled in schools in the past.

3) Professional learning has become an important tool in striving for excellence in the classroom. More educators and educational leaders look at themselves as learners just as they instill lifelong learning in their students.

There has been a tremendous amount of change in schools over the past 16 years. If we break it down to 16, 10, and 5 year cycles, we can see the pace of the change even better. Schools will always be changing to adapt to changing realities and to prepare students for an ever-fluctuating future. Over the last 16 years, schools have also increasingly seen themselves as "learning organizations", knowing that there is always more to do and new challenges to face. Much has been accomplished and much still needs to be accomplished.

Follow Mitch on Twitter: @MitchMalkus

Is it ever okay to tell a lie?
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

Is it ever okay to tell a lie? This was the question that Rabbi Nissan Antine asked in his recent sermon on Parashat Toldot, the Torah reading with the famous story of Jacob stealing Esav's birthright from his elderly father Isaac.

It's a wonderfully provocative rhetorical device to begin a sermon. I admit that I was a little nervous as many of the School's 6th grade students who were attending a Bat Mitzvah sat in the front rows listening.

Rabbi Antine began his investigation by sharing the Mishnaic dispute between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai about how to fulfil the rabbinic custom of dancing before the bride and exclaiming her grace and beauty. Ever the more literal reader of the text, Bet Shammai challenges this custom with the principle found in the Book of Exodus that we should not tell lies (Exodus 23:7).

Without getting too much into the details, Rabbi Antine went on to explain that life usually does not present clear cut cases and instead often presents us with competing values. At the end of the sermon, the listeners were presented with the challenge that in life, we may not always tell the truth because of an equally important value, like the Mishnaic disagreement that involves different understanding of beauty or our commitment to treating people with dignity and respect.

As an educator, I was thinking about the 6th grade students and how one circularizes such a discussion. Luckily, I had an answer for both. Lawrence Kohlberg was, for many years, a professor at Harvard University where he studied developmental psychology and later made significant contributions to the field of moral education. He was particularly well-known for his research that demonstrated that people progress in their moral reasoning (i.e., in their bases for ethical behavior) through a series of stages. He believed that there were six identifiable stages.

An entire approach to moral education emerged from Kohlberg's work. In this cognitive approach to moral development, students can develop their moral reasoning by exploring moral dilemmas. Just as in the case of what to tell a bride on her wedding day, life is full of decisions that often involve competing values. By discussing difficult moral dilemmas and weighing the issues in a specific case, people can develop a stronger sense of how to answer the moral dilemmas they will face during their lives. This is Kohlberg's approach to moral education.

On the way home from synagogue after Rabbi's Antine's sermon, I asked one of my sons what he thought about the question of whether it is ever okay to tell a lie. "Oh" he said, "you mean the disagreement between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, we studied that in Toshba (Oral Torah/Rabbinics), I agree with Bet Hillel – he makes much more sense than Bet Shammai." I guess he was not fazed by the question and his Mishnah study was really about a moral dilemma, not about never telling a lie.

Follow Mitch on Twitter: @MitchMalkus

In the Aftermath of the Election
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

The following post is a letter Rabbi Malkus wrote to the CESJDS community.

Dear CESJDS Friends and Community,

Over the past two weeks our school community and our country have been discussing the election results and their implications. Students in our High School have asked to share their opinions and feelings and parents have asked how CESJDS is handling these discussions. I wanted to share some reflections with you about our approach.

As a diverse and pluralistic educational institution we are non-partisan. We educate toward specific core values and encourage students to be active and engaged citizens of the United States. The School's core value of Ahavat Yisrael (Love of Israel) leads us to support Israel and care about the well-being of Jews around the world. Our core value of V'ahavta L'rei'akha (Love Your Neighbor) challenges us to see all people as created in God's image and to foster the development of students who express ethical decency to all people.

While the School is not partisan, we welcome and expect students to engage in political discussions on a daily basis as they grapple with issues like the security of Israel, racism, homelessness, and many other current and historical events. Throughout the election season and now after, the School has focused instruction on our democratic process, how elections take place in the United States, and how to conduct civil discourse. As students discuss issues in class, we prepare them to be confident and compassionate thinkers who engage the world through Jewish values – this is our School's vision. We strive to do this in an environment that respects differences of opinion.

In the aftermath of this election season, there is a renewed focus on the many challenges facing our country and there are deep divisions among Americans, including within our own community. We welcome the calls for unity that have come from both President Obama and President-elect Trump, and recognize there is much hard work to do to achieve this goal.

In the CESJDS community there has been heightened and even heated discussion. This is a normal outcome of any election process. These discussions are difficult, but are also an important part of the pluralistic community and the larger democratic society of which we are fortunate to belong.

One area the School is particularly concerned about is the rhetoric we have experienced over the past year espousing racism, bigotry, and xenophobia against many communities. We stand with all groups and individuals who are being targeted. In Montgomery County we have read the reports of schools vandalized with anti-Semitic symbols and we are alarmed by the recent surge in anti-Semitic incidents across the country over the past year. We condemn the rhetoric and the incidents in the strongest terms.

As Jews and students of history, we take seriously our responsibility to speak out against hatred in all forms. The Torah and our values demand that we not stand idly by. Our history also teaches that our own community's security is linked with that of other minority communities.

With Thanksgiving approaching, as we share appreciation for our friends, family, and all our blessings, we have the opportunity to recommit ourselves to standing up for our values, engaging with civility, denouncing all forms of racism and bigotry, and affirming our respect for the differences in our own community and in our own nation.

Warmly,

Rabbi Mitchel Malkus
Head of School

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