Friday, June 13, 2014

Signing Off

It's been seven years, almost to the day, since I started this blog with this post.  After 527 posts, 80,000 page views and endless memories, the time has come for me to sign off.  I know that Mrs. Shelley Kutliroff, the MHA's new interim Dean, intends to continue sharing all of the wonderful things that happen in this special school with all of you and once she gets settled in she'll reach out and let you know exactly how.

As for me, I'm going to continue blogging on my new site, though the posts will more closely resemble the pieces I've been writing over the years as the Message from the Dean in the school's newsletter.  As these essays are intended to provoke thought about issues critical to education, the Jewish community, and our children's future, I hope you'll subscribe to the site and join in the conversation.

Thank you for reading.  Thank you for caring.

Monday, June 9, 2014

High School Graduation

Never have I seen a high school graduation quite like the one we had last night.  While it is a long-standing tradition here at the MHA that each of the graduates speak, and while there have been impressive individual performances in the past, never have I heard anything quite like what I heard last night.

One after the other, all twenty graduates rose from their seats upon the stage and took their place at the podium.  One after another, they dazzled the crowd with their poise, creativity and confidence.  No two speeches were even remotely alike.  From a touching letter to a younger brother to a speech begun in American Sign Language and from famous movie lines bellowed from upon a chair to moving tributes to teachers for their care, there wasn't one of the twenty that failed to impress.

This is one of the most talented groups of young men and women ever to graduate our school and we can't wait to see where they go from here.

(Pictures from the evening can be seen here.  Due to technical difficulties, the pictures had to be taken with an iPhone and hence the quality is subpar.  My apologies.)

Friday, June 6, 2014

Growing Up

We had two opportunities this past week to stop and reflect on just how much our little one have grown.  The first was Kindergarten graduation, an annual rite of passage, in which we ooh and aah over those adorable kids who - in the course of three years - transformed from toddlers barely capable of speaking in full sentences to students who can read, write, think, research, question, discover, and explore.  As always, Morah Michelle, Morah Hanielle, Moreh Shimshon, and Mrs. Triplett helped our kids put on quite a show. By the time it was over no one had any doubts that all of our Kindergarteners were more than ready for 1st grade.

Just a day later it was our 8th graders turn to show us what happens when little 1st Graders finish that magical ride we call Elementary and Middle School.  Brimming with confidence and teeming with poise, each one of our "advancees" addressed the crowd with lessons they had learned from the extensive geneology project which they each just recently completed.  During the collation which followed the ceremony, parents and friends had the opportunity to mill about the gym and explore these projects in even greater depth.  The quality of their research and the creativity with which they expressed it was truly a site to behold.

All of the pictures from Kindergarten Graduation can be found here and 8th Grade Advancement pictures can be found here.  Mazal tov to all!

Making the Mishkan

For the second year in a row, Mrs. Leora Klein's sixth grade capped off months of learning about the Mishkan by building one.  Last week, students of all ages were treated to tours of their life-size model led by some of the most knowledgeable 6th grade docents I've ever seen.

New for this year were the bigdei kehunah, the garments worn both by the Kohen Gadol and the Kohen Hedyot.  It was truly inspiring to see how much knowledge and deep understanding about the construction of the Mishkan and its vessels our 6th graders gained by constructing it themselves.

For more pictures click here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Mother's Sickness, A Daughter's Revelation

The following incredible essay, authored by our own 12th grader Hudis Lang, was just published on Fresh Ink, a website by and for teens sponsored by the Jewish Week.

The florescent lights glared on the tile floors, and the gray walls of the waiting room surrounded me and my mom. I glanced at my mother — or at least she looked like my mother. It all seemed so casual, I was sitting next to my mom waiting for her to be called for her daily radiation treatment. Realizing where I was and who I was with, I leaned over and gave her a small hug. I hoped that even though her memory was fading, she would still remember I loved her. While in the waiting room something inside me had changed. I had a new perspective on life.

Rewind to two weeks before this, I was sitting in class checking my phone, just like any other day. However, this time it was different. I looked down and I saw that my oldest sister had texted me — an odd and rare occurrence. The text was extremely long and had been sent to everyone in my family. I began to read and the words seemed to slip off the screen and started to circle around my head. I could not quite grasp what was going on, nor did I want to. All I wanted was to delete the text like it never was sent. I did not want to comprehend what was written. I ran out of the classroom holding back my tears as I began to make sense of what I had just been told.

Cancer — my mom (Devorah bas Chana) had brain cancer. That little devil that you watch movies about and seems to be everywhere, yet no one thinks that it will ever affect them personally. But it was affecting me personally, and it was happening right then. It was all happening so fast. My oldest brother had spoken to me and told me that there was no cure. Treatment could only slow down the evil disease. Thoughts kept pouring in. My mind went to my little brothers who were asking me, “Why is Mommy saying funny things?” I did not want all of this to happen; I did not ask for this. Things so simple like my Mom remembering what I had told her the day before became a rarity. What did this mean for the future? I could not fathom what could happen a few years down the road. Emotions and worries took over my life; I just wanted to escape from it all. I wanted someone to wake me up from this horrible nightmare...

Read the rest of her essay here:’s-sickness-daughter’s-revelation

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Making the World a Better Place

Over the past week both our boys and girls high school students experienced chesed in the truest, most genuine sense of the word.  For our girls it was the culmination of a year-long partnership with a local branch of the Special Olympics.  For the boys it was full day spent in manual labor, assisting the disaster relief efforts in Tupelo, Mississippi as they recovered from the recent spate of tornadoes that hit the mid-South. 

Both programs were organized by Rabbi Noam Stein, our Director of Student Life, and his descriptions are below.  Both programs demonstrated to our students and to all of us, the power our children have to make our world a better place.

Special Olympics

This year the GMSG participated in the Special Olympics bowling league. Athletes in the league are developmentally, and often physically, disabled children and adults. Volunteers in the league help the athletes who need help, cheer, schmooze and interact. Aside from the physical assistance, the main purpose of volunteering is to create a natural environment for interaction between the disabled and mainstream populations. Each of our students volunteered at the program, which required taking some time from school and some additional time from the students' personal time, once every other Monday. As a group, we helped staff the program every week.

The program was founded by David Ross and his late wife who found it to be an essential activity for their developmentally disabled daughter. Throughout the year David has been an essential educational and supportive resource for our students.

The closing awards ceremony was held on Monday, May 4th. Volunteers who had maintained steady attendance at the program received certificates of commendation. Each of the GMSG students received a certificate. Our school was also awarded a plaque in appreciation of being one of two schools to provide the most volunteers to the program. In addition, 12th grader Rachel Tsuna, who has been volunteering at the program since last year, received a $500 scholarship in appreciation of her committed service.

Disaster Relief

On Monday of this week the 11th and 12th grade boys went to an area outside of Tupelo MS to partner with Nechama, a Jewish disaster response organization. We spent the day on a chicken farm. The chicken coops, which had tin roofs, had been completely destroyed by the tornado two weeks ago. Mangled slabs of tin were scattered over a radius of at least a mile. The slabs were stuck in trees and brush that had also been uprooted by the tornado. The boys collected the tin and beat it back into flat pieces so that it could be hauled off the property. The homeowners, a wonderful family with whom we had the opportunity to interact, were recycling the tin in order to try and make back a small portion of the money they lost in the disaster.

Throughout the day it was brutally hot, and the labor was hard. The boys did a tremendous job of helping this family. At the end of the day, the homeowner came to shake each one of our hands and thank us. He told us that of all the volunteer groups that have come out, our boys worked the hardest. As he said, taking time to do this kind of work for people really shows what kind of person you are. The boys made a real kiddush Hashem with some people who have had very little interaction with Jews before.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Inspiration from One of Our Own

Even if Parker Mantell weren't a graduate of the Margolin Hebrew Academy, the speech he gave this week before 17,000 people at Indiana University's Commencement Exercises would be well worth watching.  The fact that he's one of our own makes it all the more special.

To Julie, Gary, and all of his teachers along the way: thank you for encouraging and inspiring him.

To Parker: thank you for encouraging and inspiring us.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

"The Best Day of the Year"

Over and again throughout the years, I've heard students use that phrase to describe Yom Ha'atzmaut at the MHA.  Yesterday certainly didn't disappoint.

Our kids were welcomed to a building which our talented shlichim decked out as a grand tiyul ba'aretz replete with rolling fields, flowing waterfalls, boulders painted with trail markers, and the requisite ibexes. Following a tefilah chagigit students traveled through different classrooms - each set up as a different destination in Israel - where one of the benot sheirut or Torah MiTzion bachurim, assisted by an 8th grade student, helped the children to learn about that place and do a related activity.

Following the road signs posted at the hallway intersections, the elementary school students then headed outside (steering clear of the High School boys who were intensely engaged in pizza-eating contests, wheelbarrow races, and ping-pong ball balancing as part of their Maccabiah Games).  On the blacktop they rotated through a Bedouin tent where they made fresh pita, a station where they made Israel themed t-shirts, and a station where one of our IDF bachurim gave them a very gentle introduction to basic training. The morning culminated with a festive Israeli lunch and we were thrilled that so many parents came to join us.

Of course, the highlight of the day was our annual march, for which we were joined this year by students from the Bornblum Solomon Schechter.  As always, the march was lively and spirited all the way from our front door to that of Baron Hirsch.  Once we arrived, everyone was treated to snacks and the older kids went to hear some divrei Torah and chizuk from Rav Shai Finkelstein while the younger students watched a series of short, Israel-themed videos.  After fifteen minutes the groups rejoined each other for one last set of dancing before dismissal.

Have a look at the pictures here and the video below and you'll begin to understand why students fondly call Yom Ha'atzmaut at the MHA the best day of the year.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Chidon Update

These are exciting times for the MHA and its Tanach students!

Last night on Israeli national television, MHA graduate Asher Finkelstein competed in the final round of the International Chidon HaTanach.  Of thousands of contestants from across the globe who began the annual Bible Contest last year, Asher was one of the last sixteen left standing.  In the end, he finished 9th in the world.  Not bad for a boy from Memphis...

Looking to follow in Asher's very big footsteps is a group of seven current MHA students who will be headed to New York this weekend to compete in the National Finals (nine qualified, but only seven are able to make the trip).  We wish all of them the best of luck on Sunday and express our deep gratitude to their coach and mentor, Moreh Shimshon Solemon, who has given selflessly of his time inside school and well beyond to make sure that our students are best prepared for this unique challenge.

!יישר כחכם והצלחה רבה

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Celebrating Torah Study

This past Wednesday brought a new event to the MHA calendar: a community night of learning in celebration of our high school Matmidim Program.  The Matmidim Program was created last year as a means of providing both the opportunity and incentive to our high school students to extend their Torah study beyond the confines of the classroom and the school day.  Through Sunday morning shiurim, Tuesday night learning, chavruta study, and faculty monitored independent learning projects, our students were encouraged to find areas of talmud Torah that spoke to them and pursue them on their own time.

On Wednesday night the community was invited to our high school Beit Midrash to get a taste for the remarkable learning which the program has inspired, and to celebrate the impressive achievements of our students in this regard. The evening featured a mix of full-fledged shiurim delivered by several of our students and "teasers" presented by others, as a means of interesting the crowd in reading the more elaborate words of Torah they authored which were printed in a booklet distributed at the event.  The evening concluded with an inspiring siyum Shas Mishnayos made by 12th grader Gabriel Addess and his father and a light celebratory meal which followed.

Below are several clips from our student presentations.  Pictures from the evening can be found here. It is our hope that this wonderful evening was just the beginning and that our Matmidim Program is poised to grow and expand in the coming months and years.

Yom Ha-Shoah

We began last week with a moving commemoration of Yom HaShoah.  Students in grades 5 through 12 were invited to the gym where they first lit a candle before taking their seat.  Six large candles were then lit on stage, each in memory of another group of our people who were lost.  After a student led song, kel maleh, a few readings and some words from me, the high school students reenacted the thoughts of a survivor as he saw his victory over Hitler played out in the Jewish continuity of his grandchildren.  The assembly ended with a moving video and Ha-Tikvah.

This week brings us both Yom HaZikaron and Yom Haatzmaut which are sure to be both inspiring and uplifting for all of our students.

Friday, April 25, 2014

8th Grader Places 3rd in Holocaust Art Contest

8th grader Rebecca Brown placed 3rd in this year's Memphis Jewish Federation sponsored Holocaust Art Contest.  The contest, which challenges students Jewish and non-Jewish from across the region to create Holocaust inspired art in advance of Yom HaShoah, has steadily grown in recent years.  Under the direction of our talented and dedicated art teacher, Mrs. Chany Fleishhacker, MHA students have competed for top billing each and every year.

Rebecca, who has chosen to join us here in Memphis to pursue a Jewish education not available in her hometown of New Orleans, created a haunting representation of the possessions left behind by a victim of Nazi crimes.  They demonstrate the simple, and innocent, humanity of which so many were robbed during that awful time in our history.

Rebecca's work as well as the other submissions from MHA students are currently on display in the MJCC's art gallery and will be there through May 13th.  I strongly encourage all who can to stop by and see them for yourselves.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Preparing for Pesach

The school was alive with the sights and sounds of Pesach today.  From the high school boys' leibadik rendition of Chad Gadya together with their Kindergarten buddies to the PreK's Pesach scavenger hunt with Rabbi Stein's shiur, and from model seders galore to Kitah Bet's glorious Pesach play, everywhere you turned it was clear that Pesach was in the air.

For clips from the Pesach play see the Youtube playlist below.  For pictures click here.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Students Shine at Science Expo

Our science program took center stage last week as we held our second annual Science Expo.  A non-competitive twist on the old Science Fair model, the Science Expo gives students a chance to publicly share a science-related project of their own design and the learning they did in order to create it.  The younger grades, under the direction of Mrs. Triplett, joined forces to do a grade-wide project while the older grades, under the direction of Ms. Kolenic and Mr. Lewellyn, did their work either in small groups or as individuals.

From hovercrafts to mag-lev trains and exploding balloons to dissected owl pellets, there was fun and exciting evidence of learning on display everywhere one turned.  For more pictures from the evening click here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Student Accepted to Prestigious Summer Program

11th grader, Alyssa Wruble was recently accepted into the prestigious Tikvah Summer Institute at Yale University.  The Tikvah program selects a small number of the country's most talented 11th and 12th graders and brings them together for two weeks to delve deeply into some of the biggest questions that face us as American Jews.  This year's Institute is entitled "Politics, Economics, and the Jewish Person" and features world class faculty such as Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveitchik, Dr. Kimberly Kagan (founder and president of the Institute for the Study of War), Dr. James Otteson (director of the Center for the Study of Capitalism at Wake Forest University), and takes place on the Yale University Campus in New Haven, Connecticut.

We have no doubt Alyssa will find the experience enriching and enlightening and we have no doubt that the Tikvah group will be similarly enlightened and enriched by the sharp wit and penetrating insight we've all come to know and expect from Alyssa.  

Macs Head to Sarachek

Guest post by Coach Richard Lewis
Macs fans and supporters,
Circle your calendar...Tomorrow, Thursday, March 27th at 3:00pm CST the Cooper Macs will face Yeshiva Atlanta in the first round of YU's Sarachek tournament in NYC. The game can be watched online in HD at Keep an eye on as we will also play Friday, Sunday, and Monday with times, opponents, and location depending on how we fare.
The team has worked very hard over the past few weeks to prepare, including practices in four different local gyms, film sessions, studying scouting reports, and even a special pre-Shabbos practice at the FedEx Forum in the Grizzlies practice facility. All of this while a majority of the team is on the Dean's List or Honor Roll and participates in many other extracurriculars/leadership roles...pretty amazing. 
This will be the last hurrah for the team's 7 seniors. While this is a different team after losing two-time Jewish Hoops All-American Eli Osdoba to graduation, it's one of the deepest squads our school has ever taken to Sarachek. And, the Macs have arguably one of the most exciting players in the tournament in Bryan Itkowitz.
We hope to continue to build on the Sarachek success we've had the past two years, including a Tier 2 championship in 2012 and our school's first ever Tier 1 appearance last year. Regardless, we will have fun being in NYC together, visiting with alumni, and exploring YU's campus.
Thanks for everyone's support throughout the year and we hope to end the season with a bang this coming weekend.

Game Preview Here.  Team Roster Here.

Go Macs.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Girls Shine in Annual GMSG Gala

Our Girls High School took center stage last as they community came out for their annual fundraising dinner.  As always, the entire event - from purchasing and cooking the food, to setting up the hall, to providing the night's entertainment, divrei Torah, food service, and clean up - was done entirely by the girls.  They certainly had help and guidance from adults such as Rabbi Stein, Mrs. Amy Stein, and Mrs. Sara Plotitsa, and learned some tricks of the culinary trade behind the scenes from the talented Ostrow family, but the night itself belonged to our girls.

On a personal level, this dinner was made all the more special due to the girls decision to use this opportunity to pay tribute to their Tanakh teacher, AP Psych teacher, mechanechet, and assistant principal, Mrs. Melissa Perl.  From the moving video they created (which is posted below), to the tree in Israel they planted "in memory of all the paper they used" over the years in her class, to the beautiful book of personal letters from the entire student body, one couldn't help but be touched by their genuine and deep-seated demonstration of admiration and affection for an educator who has clearly made an indelible impact on their lives.

Of course, the very fact that students could put such an event together and express themselves the way that they did, is a reflection more on them then on anyone else.  They should be incredibly proud of what they did and know that we, the school community, are incredibly proud of them.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Adar Lives On

This year Purim was just a prelude to the real Adar excitement here at the MHA.  Picking up where the the 3rd graders left off with their incredible Purim play on Friday (click here for more pictures!), the Kollel and Bat Ami had an exciting Purim Carnival waiting for all of the elementary school students when they returned on Monday, Shushan Purim.

The carnival was followed by a video which the shlichim prepared and which the Junior High was invited to attend.  Ask a 7th or 8th grader and they'll tell you that was a dead giveaway.  Inviting the Junior High to a Lower School assembly could only mean one thing: COLOR WAR!

And so it was.  Starting Monday afternoon the school was a sea of blue and red as the students competed in what was widely regarded to have been the best - and most IKaRR filled - Color War our school has ever seen.  From athletics to the all-new Cardboard Challenge, and from songs and cheers to skits and banners, these two spirit-filled days gave every child a chance to shine.

Have a look at the videos to get a glimpse of what it was like and be sure to let Mrs. Gersten know what an incredible job she did putting it all together!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Unprecedented Results in National Bible Contest

The results for the qualifying test for Chidon HaTanach (the International Bible Contest) are in and the success of our students is unprecedented. Tani Finkelstein and Ariel Kampf, both of whom are 9th graders and were up against 10th and 11th graders throughout the country, qualified to move on to the national finals in New York in May.  Perhaps more startling, though, is that all seven of our Junior High students who participated in the program, also ranked high enough to move on to the national finals.  8th graders Shlomo Bosin, Batya Bosin, Chaya Klein, and Shmuel Perl, as well as 7th graders Akiva Finkelstein, Ezra Cooper, and Yisrael Weiner all prepared for the exams by putting in hours of extra study outside of school under the guidance of Moreh Shimshon Solemon.  Their hard work paid off as all of them now have a chance to compete for the national title, a prize that includes an expense paid trip to Israel next year to represent the USA in the international finals.

Given that last year's high school winner (Asher Finkelstein, pictured above) was an MHA graduate, I have no doubt that the competition will be shaking in their boots when nine MHA students show up to the competition this year!  We wish them and Moreh Shimshon a heartfelt מזל טוב on their impressive accomplishment and, win or lose, we hope that this experience and their success to date will inspire them to reach higher and higher in their Torah study in the years to come.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Academic All-Star

Congratulations to Isaac Graber who was named an Academic All-Star by the Commercial Appeal today.  The award confirms what we all knew to be true already - that Isaac ranks amongst the truly exceptional students in our region both for his accomplishments inside and outside the classroom.

Here is their write-up that appeared in the Sunday paper:

Isaac, a senior, exemplifies the Renaissance Man. By his involvement in and contributions to a variety of social, cultural and educational organizations, he has been exposed to diverse communities. He holds a 5.19 weighted grade point average and scored 2240 on the SAT. Currently slated to be the valedictorian of his class, Isaac is a National Merit Commended Student and member of the National Honor Society. He has taken seven AP courses and 25 Honors classes. As a junior, he received the Yale Book Award for outstanding potential. As president of the Student Council, Isaac plans many school events. He also leads the engineering team as they compete in the TEAMS competition at the University of Arkansas. After attending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) High School Summit in Washington in 2011, Isaac discovered a passion for Israel and Israel advocacy. He has made it his mission to educate his peers and the community about Israel. After Isaac attended the BridgeBuilder’s Summer Leadership Conference, he became very involved and now collaborates with other young Memphians committed to diversity.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Oy, The Whole Shebang!

In a rather different - and rather entertaining - twist on our annual drama productions, the Boys High School,  under the masterful direction of Mrs. Renee Brame, presented two short plays this week by Jewish playwright Rich Orloff:  "The Whole Shebang" and "Oy!".

The former used used metaphor, satire, and irony to explore the relationship between man and God while challenging the audience to think both about our limitations and potential in this world.  On a much lighter note, "Oy!" presented a series of vignettes which employed the genre of Yiddish theater and humor to poke good-natured fun at some of the peculiarities of American-Jewish culture. The cast, which included several boys from 8th grade, did a wonderful job keeping the audience thinking and laughing throughout.

For pictures and some video clips from the production, click here.

IDF Visits the High Schools

Thanks to the initiative of 11th grader Sophie Ostrow and 12th grader Gabe Goldstein, our high schools were visited by members of the Israel Defense Force this past week.  Both Sophie and Gabe were selected last summer for the highly regarded Teen Internship Program run by StandWithUs, an international Israel advocacy group.  Leveraging their connections with the organization, Sophie and Gabe arranged for Memphis to be a stop on this year's Stand With Us Israel Soldiers Stories Tour.  Together with a representative from the organization, former members of the IDF travel the country as part of this tour, talking to audiences about what it is really like to serve in the Israeli military, the unrivaled moral code which permeates everything they do, and their refusal to lower their ethical bar no matter what tactics are used by their enemies.  In addition to an evening event at the JCC, the ISS group came to our high schools and not only spoke of their experiences but showed videos of enemy targets identified by the IDF which they were prepared to attack but which they abandoned due to the fear of civilian casualties.  Although our students knew much of what they had to say beforehand, hearing their stories - up close and personal - from the people who lived it, was a whole new experience for many of them.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Reflections on "Work" in Jewish Education

The following post is based on the Message from the Dean in this week's MHA/FYOS newsletter. Current and previous editions of the newsletter can be accessed here.

At the closing plenary of the first day of the Martin Institute’s Project Zero Conference, Ron Ritchhart related that a British researcher sat in on a random sampling of classrooms in order to measure the number of times the words “work” and “learning” was used by the teacher.  What he found is that for every one mention of “learning” there were 48 mentions of “work.”

Project Zero is a research group based in Harvard University’s School of Education which has been studying the essential aspects of human learning for almost fifty years.  Ritchhart, who began his career as an elementary school math teacher, has been a researcher with Project Zero since 1994 and his book entitled Making Thinking Visible may be the group’s best known product, second only to the work of Howard Gardner.  Thanks to the Martin Institute, based out of PDS here in Memphis, ten members of our administration and faculty were amongst over 700 educators from across the globe who had the privilege of hearing from Ritchhart this past Thursday about his work on creating cultures of learning in schools.

Amongst the points which Ritchhart emphasized was that schools aren't simply places where students learn.   They are places where students learn about learning.  Learning has a story: what it looks like, how it’s done, what it’s for – and every school communicates that story to the children who pass through its classrooms and hallways.  According to Ritchhart, the story of learning being told in most schools today continues to hearken back to the Industrial Age.  It’s a story of success and failure, of winners and losers.  It’s a story of products rather than process, and – most of all – it’s a story of work: homework, class work, workbooks, worksheets, quiet work, group work, showing your work, and finishing your work lest you have to take it home.  It’s a story about penalizing kids who just “get it” but don’t do the work and rewarding the kids who do the work but don’t really “get it.”  What would it look like, he wondered, if instead of being about “work” the story our children were hearing in school was about “learning?”  Home learning and class learning. Learning books and learning sheets.  Quiet learning, group learning, showing your learning, and never finishing it.  Would we see a mere shift in vocabulary or a sea change in what our children do in school?

I wondered as I listened whether the equation of school with work has implications for what happens once our children leave school as well.  That is, if learning is the work that people do when they are in school, are we implicitly telling our children that when they leave school and enter a new occupation the learning stops and a new – more worthwhile – form of workbegins?  Is the vocabulary we are using suggesting to studentthat unless they choose research or teaching as a profession, learning is something that has a finite time and place and with the flip of a tassel it mercifully comes to an end?

Sad as it might be that our emphasis on school “work” may result in children never opening another book of history, reading another classic of literature, or keeping up with developments in science post graduation, the implications for the Judaic side of our curriculum are all the more daunting.  If learning Chumash and NaviGemara and HalachahMussar and Machshavah, are seen by our children as mere “work” to be completed upon graduation, the very essence of our heritage is put perilously at risk.  Jewish educators today, though, find themselves in a bind.  On the one hand, we want our students to see their Torah learning as a lifelong endeavor – one that is joyful, inspirational, and never limited by time or place.  Yet, on the other hand, we fear that disassociating talmud Torah with the “work” which defines today’s schooling culture, may lead parents and students alike to deflate its value, rather than inflate it; to take it less “seriously” because the amount of “work” isn’t the same.  

It didn't used to be this way.  Jewish education has always had its challenges and for most of our history, rigorous Torah study was the provenance of small and select few.  But for all of our controversies through the ages over what to learn and how to learn it, one thing has always been true: Torah study has always been about learning and never about "work". 

So perhaps it’s time for our schools to begin telling a new story of learning.  And perhaps Torah-based Day Schools should be leading the way.

Model UN

Congratulations to our high school Model UN teams who made our schools proud with their performance at last week's annual YUNMUN event in Stamford, CT.  Headlining that performance was Aaron Knobel who was awarded an Honorable Mention for the work he did in his committee on curbing discrimination against women.

This weekend it's time for our athletes to shine as our Girls High School varsity basketball team competes in the Miami Tournament and our Junior High boys take on national competition in Chicago.  Best of luck to them both!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Thoughts on Mercava

The following post appeared as the Dean's Message for the MHA / FYOS school newsletter last week.  Previous newsletters and messages can be accessed here.

The future of Jewish education is here.  Without it, we will lose at least an entire generation of Jewish children.  With it, we’ll unify the Jewish people and change the world.
These are some of the lofty promises made in a promotional video that has been viewed some 19,000 times since it was posted on YouTube six weeks ago.  Its creators are an Israel-based group called Mercava who, according the video, include “Executives who brought you Facebook, creative minds behind Disney, and pioneers of 21st century education from Pearson Education.” They believe that the Digital Age, with its barrage of high-speed, high-definition, interactive and immersive media experiences - coupled with the seductive allure of social media - have created a challenge for Jewish educators unlike any we’ve ever seen before.  Jewish children today, they say, need their information delivered on demand, in hyperlinked text, with stunning graphics, integrated video, and digital animation.  Jewish children today, they say, need our Torah texts instantly translated and brilliantly brought to life by the creative minds that brought us Toy Story, Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph.    Without it, our children will be distracted, uninterested, and unengaged.  With it, we’ll save a generation.  This is “the cutting edge.” This is what Mercava has set out to do.
Readers of this column, readers of my blog, and those generally familiar with our school, know that over the past five years our faculty and administrators have spent countless hours reading about, thinking about, and discussing the unique set of challenges posed to our children by our rapidly changing world.  You also know that technology integration is something we have embraced across all grade levels and disciplines.  Yet, when watching this video from Mercava I couldn’t help but feel disappointed.  Disappointed not in the quality of their proposed content or in the elegance of the tools they are building to disseminate it.  Disappointed, rather, by a sense that their truly laudable efforts on behalf of Jewish education hardly scratch the surface in addressing the most significant challenges facing our children and their future.  
As part of our efforts to adjust our curriculum so as to best prepare students for their future rather than our past, our faculty adopted a set of “C21 Standards” a year ago which list the capacities we believe our students need to succeed in the 21st Century.  These standards are broken down into five categories: Analytical and Creative Thinking, Digital and Quantitative Literacy, Global Perspective, Adaptability Initiative and Risk Taking, and Religion and Modernity.  In all, there are fifty standards which our PreK-12 faculty felt accurately portrayed the additional skill set which our students will need in order to effectively navigate this brave new world academically, professionally, socially, emotionally, and religiously.  Sadly, I count only five of those fifty - and only one in the category of Religion and Modernity -  which this new platform heralded by Mercava as the future of Jewish education, will help our students to address.  
Perhaps more significant, though, is the fact that this platform, if overused, may make some of our other standards more difficult to achieve.  For instance, standard 5c, under Religion and Modernity, calls for our students to “Distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources of religious information on the web.”  Mercava’s tools, with its crowd-sourcing approach and its use of digital animation to reimagine stories in Tanakh, may well blur the line between fact and fiction rather than help our students to delineate it.  Standard 5j reminds us that in this world of sound bytes, video clips, and tweets of a 140 characters or less, one of our objectives as Torah educators must be to help our students “Demonstrate the capacity for sustained textual analysis.”  While Mercava’s model of making 1,000 classical Jewish texts available for free in fully searchable and fully hyperlinked format may certainly help to encourage Torah learning be-iyyun, its promotional video clearly suggests that we ought to give in to contemporary society’s propensity for quick, instantly accessible, and therefore often shallow, messaging rather than fighting it by helping our students to taste the exhilaration and sense of accomplishment that comes with struggling through a thorny text and ultimately arriving at its true meaning.  Perhaps most glaring is the potential impact which Mercava’s project may have on standard 5i which calls for students to “Understand and appreciate the value in ‘powering down’ on regular occasions.”  If even Torah learning can’t be done without high-def and surround sound, I fear what will become of Shabbat and Yom Tov in the world of children and our children’s children.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve already registered for an account on Mercava’s site and I’ve taken their Daf Yomi app for a spin.  If the rest of their “product line” develops as they describe it, I certainly see myself using it and encouraging its use, under the right circumstances, in some of our classrooms.  What is critical, though, is that the world of Jewish education not see in this exciting tool a panacea for all of the very real challenges which we face in the years ahead.  Far more important than creating digital tools for the classroom, will be cultivating teachers with the skills to effectively use them and the flexibility to replace them when the next new thing comes our way.  And just as Rav Chaim of Volozhin did in his day, Rav Hirsch did in his, and Sarah Schenirer did in hers, it will be up to the educators of our day to constantly find new ways of bringing Torah to life, of demonstrating its continued relevance, of modeling its unrivaled beauty, and of inspiring its continued study even in the face of the monumental challenges posed by the Digital Age. 

Siddur Presentation

Kitah Aleph brought the house down with their singing, dancing, and speaking at Sunday's siddur presentation. The program, designed and directed by Morah Debbie with help from Morah Gila, Cantor Samberg, Morah Chany, and Morah Yehudit, opened with a first-grader's piano rendition of Hatikvah and culminated with Mrs. Gersten's presentation to each student of a beautiful siddur, hand decorated by each student's parents.

The variety of songs, speaking parts, and choreography set a new standard for what a Siddur Presentation can be and for what first graders can do!  Pictures from the incredible event can be accessed here.

Medicine and Halacha

The high schools had the privilege last week of hearing from Professor Yonatan Halevy, Director General of Shaare Zedek Hospital in Yerushalyim.  Professor Halevy shared with them his rather unique insight into the interplay between modern medicine and Jewish Law which comes from his decades at the helm of the world's only modern hospital that operates fully in accordance with Halacha.

From stem cells to end-of-life issues, Professor Halevy sensitized the students both to the difficulty of the dilemmas that arise from time to time, while emphatically stating that there has never been a conflict between accepted best practice in modern medicine and the demands of Torah law that the medical experts and halachic experts couldn't jointly resolve.  In fact, he noted that some of the policies created at Shaare Zedek under the guidance of their poskim have been adopted by hospitals worldwide due to the sense that they best reflect ethical standards for medical practice.  In doing so he heightened the students' appreciation both for the work of Shaare Zedek and for the place of Halacha in the modern world.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Geography and Meteorology

Learning has come to life in all sorts of different ways for our elementary school over the past few days. Late last week, the grade level winners of National Geographic's National Geography Bee went head to head in order to determine the school winner.  While the competition was fierce and everyone gave it their best, 8th grader Shmuel Perl defended his title and will be moving on to the State qualifying test.  Students who score in the top 100 on the qualifying test are invited to Nashville in late March to compete in the state finals.

Today, everyone in third through 6th grade was a winner when Channel 3 Meteorologist Austen Onek visited Mrs. Triplett's science room to teach a lesson about weather.  With an array of recycled "junk" that he brought with him, Mr. Onek showed our students how they could build a fully functioning weather station out of materials they could find lying around their house.  He explained to them what each homemade instrument could measure and encouraged our kids to get actively involved in studying and reporting developments in the local weather.

Here are some more pictures from both the geography bee and the visit from Mr. Onek.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Images of our Mission

A little over a year ago, and following a grueling process that stretched over several months, our Board of Trustees voted to adopt a new mission statement; one that was felt to better capture the essence of who our school is what it strives to be.  Above is that statement illustrated by images of the children who bring it to life each and every day.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Divrei Hesped for Rabbi Efraim Greenblatt, ztz"l

I remember walking into the Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth Congregation for the first time and noticing the slender man with the long white beard and black kapota standing near the mechitzah a few rows up from the bimah on the left hand side.  It was clear from his seat and the way that he carried himself that he was intending to be inconspicuous.  His garb, though, set against the deep purple and metalic silver of Anshei's unique decor made doing so rather difficult.

My first instinct was that this must be a visitor.   A rabbi, perhaps, visiting the mid-South from New York or maybe from Yerushalayim.  After seeing him interact with the rest of those who had come to Anshei to daven that Shabbos - a wonderfully eclectic mix of Jews from all backgrounds and of all levels of observance - I realized how mistaken I had been.  I was the visitor.  This was his home.  This was Rav Efraim Greenblatt: famed sage, student of Rav Moshe Feinstein, and one of the greatest poskim of his generation.  This was Rav Efraim Greenblatt whose erudition and acclaim didn't prevent him from spending decades, alongside his wife, teaching Torah to Memphis's youngest children in the school I had then just come to run.

Last week, the Torah world lost one of its most brilliant minds and the Memphis community lost one of its most cherished teachers: Ha-Rav Ha-Gaon Rav Efraim Greenblatt, zecher tzaddik le-vrachah.

It is an honor and a privilege to share with you these divrei hesped, words of eulogy, written by Rav Efraim's son, Rabbi Menachem Greenblatt, rov of Agudas Israel of St. Louis.