Lessons in Jewish Educational Leadership from an Airline Pilot 4

by Josh Mason-Barkin

(cross-posted to Josh’s blog)

For the past three years, a big part of my job at Torah Aura Productions has involved flying around the country to work with synagogue school educators and teachers. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time on planes. And since my natural predilection is to be geeky about these sorts of things, I’ve become something of an airplane nerd who now feels at home among communities of frequent travelers.

As part of my geekiness, last year I had the opportunity to meet a special pilot, Captain Denny Flanagan, who flies for United Airlines. Captain Denny, as he is affectionately called by the frequent flyers who adore him, has become a celebrity among road warriors for his amazing dedication to customer service. He’s an experienced airline pilot who goes out of his way to make the commercial air travel experience pleasant (gasp!) for customers.

I’ve read a lot of accounts of the big and small things that Captain Denny does to make air travel better. He’s an incredible ambassador for the entire industry and for his airline. (You can read some of these accounts here, here, and here.) If you’ve been on an airplane recently, you probably know that the airlines could use a lot more people like Captain Denny.

Recently, it occurred to me that Captain Denny isn’t just an example for people who work in air travel. In fact, it’s clear to me that — although he is not Jewish and not an educator — he actually has a lot to teach Jewish educators about how to carry ourselves, and about how to be leaders. This, I figure, is the perfect opportunity to find a nexus between two things I love: Jewish education and airplanes. So, with a tip of the hat to Carol Starin’s Let Me Count the Ways, here are six lessons in Jewish educational leadership that I’ve learned from Captain Denny:

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A Serious Ennui 1

If the 1960s Hebrew school is really a thing of the past, then 1960s textbooks need to be a thing of the past, too.

by Josh Mason-Barkin

My wife and I went to see the Coen brothers’ latest film this weekend, A Serious Man. For me, it was a double-whammy must-see. First, I’m a huge fan of their movies. (“We’re talking about unchecked aggression here, Dude.”) Second, the movie purports to be about rabbis, Jews, and Judaism, and well, I’m a Jewish educator and my wife is a Jewish educator and soon-to-be rabbi. So suffice it to say that we were excited.

The film lived up to expectations, and then some. It’s a deep and fascinating look at Jewish life in 1960s middle American suburbia, complete with a Job-esque examination of a father’s quest to find meaning in his life. It’s rich with cultural and religious allusions, and has a lot to say about the relationship between Jews and Jewish leadership (especially rabbis).

But I have to admit I paid extra attention to the Hebrew school scenes.

Twice in the movie we visit Danny Gopnick sitting bored in his Talmud Torah class. It’s as old-fashioned a classroom as you can imagine. The teacher is trying to show the students how to properly conjugate the Hebrew word for “to go,” droning on “Hu holekh habayta, hi holekhet habayta, anahnu holkhim habayta…” The students are totally unengaged, they have no idea what’s going on, and their answers to the teacher’s questions suggest that they don’t understand anything he’s been trying to teach them. They each sit staring at their books, totally confused at the meaningless foreign language printed in front of them.

(As for me, I sat there during that scene praying. “Please don’t let it be a Torah Aura book…” Thankfully, the prop folks went with books from a different publisher. Whew.)

In a second school scene, the teacher tries to teach the students to say, in Hebrew, that they want to plant a tree in Israel. Not only are they all bored, but it’s clear that they have no idea what’s going on, they don’t care, and there’s virtually nothing meaningful, worthwhile, or redeemable about the entire enterprise. The non-Hebrew-speaking audience has no idea what’s going on either, which seems to be a very intentional choice by the filmmakers. As Naomi Pfefferman points out in the Jewish Journal:

The Coens chose not to subtitle the Hebrew lesson scenes in “A Serious Man” to help enhance the fictional classroom’s droning sense of ennui.

Pfefferman is a gifted writer, and her choice of the word “ennui” is perfect.

Ennui is “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement” (thanks, New Oxford American Dictionary).

Jewish education has come a long way since 1967, when the film takes place, and I’m proud to say that I’ve worked with and in many schools whose students, I can confidently say, never feel a “droning sense of ennui.”

Schools are doing some amazing things to make Jewish learning exciting, engaging, and meaningful: experiential learning, family education, flexible scheduling, and rethought curricula. The entire idea of a supplementary (ahem, “complementary”) education has undergone a complete re-imagination (for the better!) in the past decade.

So if few of today’s classrooms look like the one in A Serious Man, why are too many textbooks designed for educational settings where children sit stoically at their desks as teachers attempt to mindlessly drill facts and Hebrew reading skills into their heads? (And lets be clear: Computer games that mindlessly drill facts and skills are just as bad. Being computerized doesn’t remove the ennui.) We’re not sure why these sort of textbooks still exist, but we know that we want to be part of the solution.

Here are four suggestions for improving the quality of Jewish educational publishing:

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Learning About Autism 1

by Josh Barkin

My commute to the Torah Aura Productions Headquarters (in beautiful Vernon, CA) is kind of long. Or it can be, depending on the unpredictable traffic patterns of the 10 freeway. To pass the time, I listen to a bunch of podcasts. Basically, podcasts are like radio programs that you can download and listen to whenever you want. In fact, all of my favorite podcasts are actually weekly public radio programs that — instead of tuning in to my local NPR station at their scheduled times — I download and listen to whenever I feel like it. My favorites are This American Life (out of WBEZ in Chicago), Radiolab (from WNYC in New York), and Studio 360 (also from WNYC). I download all of these podcasts through iTunes, and they are automatically downloaded to my iPod. Then I hook up the iPod to the car stereo, and I can listen on my way to and from the office. (This sounds very high tech, but it’s actually very easy. Even if you don’t have an iPod, you can use iTunes to download the podcasts and then burn them to a CD.)

This is all a very long way of getting to my point:

This week’s episode of Studio 360 is all about autism, and about people who fall along various points of the autism spectrum. It’s an amazing hour of radio. They interview an author who has Asperger’s syndrome, and they have pieces about autistic kids getting involved in musical theatre and scientists watching movies with autistic adults in order to better understand how people with autism see the world.

It made me think a lot about the autistic kids who’ve been my students in a number of Jewish educational settings. I’ve worked with Asperger’s kids, non-communicative autistic kids, and high-functioning autistic kids. In all cases, my biggest challenge as a teacher was trying to meet the learners where they were at.

The radio program cites a recent CDC study that suggests that 1-in-15 children in the United States has some form of autism. Assuming this is true (and I have no reason to believe it isn’t, but I have to admit that I’m pretty poorly versed in autism research), then a significant number of our students in Jewish schools are autistic. (Or… maybe there are a lot of autistic kids out there who aren’t being served by Jewish educational institutions.)

I know there’s lots of work being done to improve the way we serve children with special needs and their families. There are organizations that do really good work on this front, and lots of synagogues are putting lots of resources into serving this particular part of our community. But the simple truth is that too many teachers (myself included) are poorly equipped to work with autistic students.

And though lots of training and staff-education is really important, maybe the easiest thing we can do is to learn to see the world through the eyes of people with autism. This week’s episode of Studio 360 helped me to start doing just that. I highly recommend it.

To listen to it yourself, visit http://www.studio360.org/episodes/2008/03/28, and click the “Download Show” link on the left-hand side.Joel Grishaver