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Posts Tagged ‘Columbia University’

The Destructive Phenomenon Of Kiddush Clubs

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

A number of years ago I attended a “Kiddush Club” gathering in the basement of a synagogue. Right when the haftarah reading began, several older men snuck out the back and in a small dark room in the basement opened multiple bottles of alcohol. They drank excessively until the sermon was over and then, not so inconspicuously, returned back for the final portion of the Shabbat morning service.

I remember thinking at the time, “Isn’t it only fair for people to enjoy a nice drink on their weekend?”

Since then, I’ve learned how destructive this cultural phenomenon has become in shuls across the country.

To be sure, I’m not the first to raise this concern. A few years back the Orthodox Union launched a campaign to eradicate the Kiddush Club from our midst, and a number of rabbis courageously succeeded in eliminating or reducing the size of these gatherings in their shuls.

These rabbis understood it was disrespectful to the congregation and a terrible influence on the children. This drinking, though it seems harmless to many, can serve as a gateway to drugs, drunk driving, and fatal decision-making.

One rabbi told me that many women begged him to end Kiddush Clubs because their husbands were coming home from shul so drunk they couldn’t even sit at the Shabbat table, and as a result would spend the entire day drunk in bed.

Is this the holy day of rest? What kind of values are we promoting in shul?

Alcoholism, contrary to what many of us choose to believe, is a pervasive problem in the community, one that JACS, a Jewish organization supporting alcoholics and those who are chemically dependent, works diligently to address.

Some studies have shown that 10-15 percent of Jews are alcoholics; contrary to public opinion, it is not the lowest socio-economic groups that predominantly struggle with this problem.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski, who is affiliated with JACS, noted that “A New York survey indicated that 50 percent of Jewish alcoholics studied had an annual income of at least $50,000 per year.”

Knowing that this is a pervasive yet often silenced issue in our communities, how can we possibly take a permissive approach to housing Kiddush Clubs in our synagogues?

Jewish law prohibits achila gasa (overconsumption) because the Torah teaches that when one has consumed excessively, one risks falling victim to greed and self-indulgence. It is not abstinence but moderation that is advocated. The Rambam prioritizes in his teachings on life ethics the shevil zahav, the golden mean, in order that one emulate the ways of God.

Yet, a reader is sure to ask, aren’t there Jewish festivities that might allow or even encourage a little overindulgence?

The Beit Yosef, author of the Shulchan Aruch, went so far as to rule that “the mitzvah to drink on Purim does not mean to get drunk, because being drunk is a totally forbidden, and there is no sin greater than this.”

If this is true for Purim, then how much more so for a Shabbat morning at 10:45a.m.!

Advocates of Kiddush Clubs argue that “it’s not about getting drunk but just about making a littlel’chaim”.

It is rarely manifested this way, however, and pockets of exclusivity that reinforce materialism and reckless consumption are destructive to our spiritual communities. These clubs exclude women (and many men) and send an inappropriate message to our kids about drinking and about what shul and Shabbat are supposed to be about.

Adults who deliberately ignore and disrespect Jewish communal life in effect make the day-school tuition they’ve been paying a waste of money. It is vital for the efficacy of Jewish education that the positive Jewish character traits taught in school are modeled at home and in the community.

A few shuls have recognized the extent of the problem and have fully banned alcohol from the building, aside from the ceremonial wine. While this is a positive start, we must now attack not only the supply but the demand – the culture that prioritizes personal pleasure over communal responsibility.

We must make it clear that a culture of sanctioned hedonism within our most sacred institutions has no place in Jewish life.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek; senior Jewish educator at UCLA; and a 5th-year Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University in moral psychology & epistemology.

When Nazism Was All The Rage On Campus

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Campus radicalism, support for totalitarianism, and general political extremism are not new on Western campuses. Indeed some of the worst political extremism in academic history took the form of enthusiastic support on American campuses for Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
 
This disgraceful chapter in American academic history is the topic of a new book, The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower, by Stephen H. Norwood (Cambridge University Press). The author is a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University.
 
The simple lesson from examining the behavior on American campuses in the 1930s is that the appeasement, the support for totalitarian aggression and terror, and the academic bigotry and anti-Semitism that today characterize so many American universities were all predominant forces on many campuses in the 1930s, especially at America’s elite schools.
 
Norwood’s book is a must read, but also a sad and uncomfortable one. He details the reactions of America’s professors and universities to the rise of Hitler. The responses on American campuses ranged from complete indifference and refusal to join in campaigns against Nazi Germany to widespread support for German Nazism.
 
Starting in 1933, anti-Hitler mass protests were held throughout the United States. Americans of all creeds joined in. At the same time, “College and university presidents and administrators did not convene protest meetings against Nazi anti-Semitism on the campuses, nor did they urge their students and faculty members to attend the nationwide mass rallies held on March 27, 1933.”
 
Harvard University stood out in its moral failure and collaboration with Nazism. Many faculty members were openly anti-Semitic, including Harvard’s president, James Bryant Conant. Later, after the war, Conant served as U.S. ambassador to Germany and worked to get Nazi war criminals paroled and hired. He lobbied for appointment of Nazis to various public posts in Europe and at the United Nations.
 
Harvard’s law school dean, Roscoe Pound, was openly sympathetic to Hitler, vacationed in Germany and attended anti-Semitic events there. Harvard history professor William L. Langer strongly defended Hitler’s reoccupation and remilitarization of the Rhineland, which was the first step in launching World War II. More generally he served as a sort of academic apologist for the Nazis.
 
Harvard went out of its way to host and celebrate Nazi leaders. The high Nazi official Ernst (Putzi) Hanfstaengl was invited as the Harvard commencement speaker in 1934. The wealthy Hanfstaengl had been one of Hitler’s earliest and most important backers. He was on record insisting “the Jews must be crushed,” and describing Jews as “the vampire sucking German blood.”
 
The student paper, the Harvard Crimson, defended Hanfstaengl. Harvard called in the Boston police to arrest Jews and others protesting the visit, and they were charged with “illegally displaying signs.” When Hanfstaengl returned to Germany from Harvard, he was personally greeted by Hitler.
 
Harvard maintained warm relations with many Nazi institutions, particularly the University of Heidelberg, even after it proclaimed proudly that it had expelled all its Jews. In 1937 Harvard’s president was still saluting Nazi universities as playing a legitimate part in the “learned world.”
 
In 1935 the German consul in Boston was invited by Harvard to lay a wreath with a swastika on it in the campus chapel. Nazi officials were invited to Harvard’s tercentenary celebrations in 1936, held intentionally on the Jewish High Holidays as a slap in the face of Jewish faculty and students. A mock student debate held in 1936 was presided over by Harvard professors as judges. They acquitted Hitler of most of the mock charges (condemning him only for having a German general killed) and declared that German persecution of Jews was simply irrelevant.
 
Other elite New England academic institutions expressed similar sentiments. Yale was only marginally less friendly to the Nazis than Harvard. Some MIT professors came out vocally in support of Hitler and Nazi Germany. Professor Thomas Chalmers of the history department at Boston University publicly demanded a “hands off ” policy regarding Hitler and opposed American denunciations of Nazi Germany.
 
Norwood’s own alma mater, Columbia University, is a major target in his book. Columbia was an active collaborator with Nazi Germany in many ways. Months after Germany started book burning, Columbia’s president, Nicholas Murray Butler, went out of his way to welcome Nazi Germany’s ambassador to the U.S. for a lecture at the school and praised the Nazi as a gentleman and a representative of “a friendly people.” Shortly afterward, when a man who had escaped from a Nazi concentration camp lectured on campus, Butler refused to attend.
 
More than one Columbia faculty member was fired for taking an anti-Nazi stand. These included a Jewish professor of fine arts, Jerome Klein, who dared to protest the campus visit of the Nazi ambassador.
 
Freedom of speech was selectively defended on campuses in the 1930s, as it is again today in the 21st century. The president of Queens College prohibited an anti-Nazi speaker from giving a lecture on campus as late as spring 1938.
 

All of the above sound familiar? It does to Norwood, who says he sees frightening similarities between what has been happening on American campuses since the early 1990s and what transpired in the 1930s.

 

 

Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.

The Balanced Literacy Debate

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

There is a startling connection between illiteracy and crime. One journalist in The New York Times noted that, “60 percent of the state and federal prison population of 440,000 cannot read above the sixth grade level.” In other words, more than half of all criminals would be considered illiterate by modern standards. In order to improve reading rates and reduce crime, organizations such as the Book ‘Em Foundation utilize police officers to read to school age children. The logic is that if children learn to read, they will be more likely to attain future success.

So how are educators working to meet this goal? In 2001, President George W. Bush enacted “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB), a national educational act that focuses on standards, testing, and teacher accountability in schools. NCLB spurred multiple reforms in municipalities across the United States.

Among the cities that modified their reading curriculum was New York. In 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg implemented a “Balanced Literacy” program, a system formulated by Columbia University education specialists. From the start the Balanced Literacy program generated controversy, sparked by strong advocates and resolute detractors.

What is Balanced Literacy?

Before we can define Balanced Literacy, we need to understand the two opposing fields of reading theory: phonics and whole language.

Phonics: Benefits and Drawbacks

Students who learn how to read based on the phonics system enunciate different sounds or phonemes in a language. In English, for instance, “f” and “ph” are the same phoneme: “f.” Once the students learn the different phonemes, they then put them together in order to read whole words. Through sounding out the different phonemes, the phonics system allows students to read words that they have never encountered before. On the other hand, the phonics system requires students to learn multiple phonemes before enabling them to read many words on their own. Sometimes this longer period of learning before the gratification of reading frustrates students, making them believe that reading is all about memorization and learning by rote.

Whole Language: Benefits and Drawbacks

As opposed to learning different sounds in order to piece together full words, the whole language system believes in immediately attracting children to reading by giving them an early grasp of printed language through a “sight” vocabulary of memorized words and phrases. These memorized words give students a sense of accomplishment when they open simple books and are able to read whole sentences. One drawback of the whole language system, however, is that students are not provided with the skills to decode new words that they encounter. Unlike phonics learners, whole language learners continue to need experienced readers to teach them new words.

Balanced Literacy

The Balanced Literacy program is based heavily on the whole language approach. Robert Kolker, in New York magazine, explained that Balanced Literacy “operates on the presumption that breaking down words distracts kids, even discourages them, from growing up to become devoted readers. Instead, students in a Balanced Literacy program get their pick of books almost right away – real books, not the Dick and Jane readers, with narratives that are meant to speak to what kids relate to, whether it’s dogs or baseball or friendship or baby sisters.” This approach, therefore, rejects textbooks and traditional grammar drills – and instead stocks classroom with age-appropriate books.

NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein justified his support for the Balanced Literacy program by revealing that the only reason he did well in school and became a federal prosecutor was because an elementary school gave him a book about baseball. When he read that book and enjoyed it, it inspired him to continue to read and succeed in school. With that in mind, he implemented the Balanced Literacy program in nearly all of New York City’s 743 elementary schools.

Balanced Literacy and Controversy

One obvious benefit of Balanced Literacy is students’ immediate love of reading. In contrast, many argue that in the long run Balanced Literacy is not the most effective way to teach students to read.

Balanced Literacy and Social Class

Detractors of the Balanced Literacy program point out that the system has no set curriculum and operates on a teacher-by-teacher basis. In May 2004, in the EnglishJournal, Greg Hamilton from Columbia University points out that the program only works when there is a multitude of in-service support for teachers. In schools where there are lead teachers, principals who monitor teachers’ progress, and consistent training, the Balanced Literacy program has been succeeding.

The problem is that in the most underprivileged schools where the reading levels are the lowest, there is less financial backing for in-service training. This in turn translates into a situation in which the low reading levels are getting lower, while the neighborhoods with already high reading levels are rising. Additionally, in the wealthier neighborhoods, parents are able to provide their children with extra tutoring hours in order to reinforce phonic reading. Alternatively, in the disadvantaged neighborhoods, the students are unable to pay for extra tutoring and following a predominantly whole language approach means that they then lack the basic phonic skills for the future.

Balanced Literacy and Writing

Another argument against the Balanced Literacy program is the impact it could potentially have on writing skills. Most Balanced Literacy teachers create writing workshops in the classroom. Writing workshops consist of students writing individually, sharing their work with their peers, and conferencing with teachers. There are advantages to the writing workshop method, many being similar to the whole language approach. Through the relaxed and pleasurable environment, students might fall in love with writing, prompting them to write and read more on their own. This is, of course, the intent of Balanced Literacy programs.

The pitfall is that when students learn primarily through reading books rather than textbooks and workbooks, they might not pick up the correct mechanics of the English language, such as grammar and spelling. The hope is, as New York magazine states, that they will learn these ideas through “osmosis.” But, unfortunately, research has shown that many students fail to pick up these conventions through casual reading. When coupled with students’ increased time on the Internet and their phones, this dearth of grammatical drilling might lead to an acute lack of knowledge of conventional English.

Balanced Literacy and Hebrew

Almost all Hebrew language classes are based on the phonics system. As Julie Baumler, a writer on Middle East Culture, points out, there are rare exceptions to rules in Hebrew. Additionally, the Hebrew language isabjad, or consists solely of consonants. The vowels are represented by the nekudot. These two elements simplify the reading process and allow students to learn just a few rules in order to pick up even the most complex book and sound out the words. Obviously phonics does not encourage comprehension, which, in turn, might make students believe that reading is boring or tedious.

If our yeshivot were to incorporate the Balanced Literacy approach to Hebrew instruction, students might feel more passionate about studying Hebrew. However, inevitably their ease in reading and their pronunciation would falter. Perhaps there is a way to unite the two systems in a more equalized program.

Recent Changes to Balanced Literacy Programs

In August 2008, The New York Times reported that 10 New York City public schools were changing their curriculum from Balanced Literacy programs to the Core Knowledge system. It noted, “The Core Knowledge curriculum is heavily focused on content, vocabulary skills and nonfiction books.” It is also focused heavily on phonics. This move is a clear shift away from the writing workshop and whole language method of immersion in interesting, exciting books. With 10 schools participating in the pilot program, the city will have a chance to see which approach is more effective.

So What Can We Do?

The question remains: Are the enjoyment and enthusiasm for reading that are sparked by the whole language system preferable, or are the skills and proficiency that are promoted by the phonics program favorable? That question has yet to be answered; perhaps a mix of the two approaches is the golden mean. Regardless, we as parents and educators must understand that providing our children with the ability to read is fundamentally a gift for a better future.

Rifka Schonfeld founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program SOS (Strategies for Optimum Success), servicing all grade levels in both secular and Hebrew studies. She is a well-known and highly regarded educator, having served the community for close to 30 years. As a kriyah and reading specialist, she has successfully set up reading labs in many schools and yeshivas. In addition to her diversified teaching career, she offers teacher training and educational consulting services. She has extensive expertise in the field of social skills training, and focuses on working with the whole child. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 (KIDS).

From Amputation To Wholeness: A Call To Art From The Torah World

Friday, December 19th, 2003

“We have inherited an amputated visual culture, viscously cut off from our artistic forefathers we have every right to lay claim to,” exclaimed Archie Rand, artist and professor at Columbia University. In a passionate and articulate account, Rand recounted a sweeping history unknown to many. From the Jewish muralists in the third century CE, Dura-Europos synagogue to Camille Pissarro, one of the founders of Impressionism and an important influence on Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne, Jews have played an important role in the visual arts. Rand demanded that we recognize and capitalize upon this crucial role, especially
in Jewish education.

Concerning the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, easily the most important movement in mid-20th Century culture, Rand noted that, “A significant percentage of the important artists were Jews. We need to celebrate the Jewish artists,” Rand demanded of an appreciative audience at the ATID (Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions) conference held at the Center for Jewish Culture on Sunday, November 9, 2003.

This conference, entitled “Creative Spirituality: Jewish Education and the Arts” organized by Rabbi Chaim Brovender, president of ATID and for many years Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat HaMivtar (Brovenders) in Efrat, Israel, may be one of the most significant events in the growing reawakening of the Jewish arts.

The gathering, cosponsored by Yeshiva University Museum, brought together practicing artists, yeshiva educators, museum curators and rabbinic leaders to explore the role and potential of art in Jewish education. Rabbi Brovender linked the unique quality of beauty found in nature or created artworks, to the uniqueness found in the truth embedded in Torah.  Paradoxically, neither is ever totally satisfying; we always feel a need to experience more beauty and truth.

The newness of each encounter adds to the unique quality of each experience in learning Torah and viewing beauty and art. Rabbi Brovender suggested that, since the nature of Torah and the nature of beauty have similarities, perhaps the teaching of art could enhance or
reinvigorate the teaching of Torah in yeshivas.

Earlier, Sylvia Heshkowitz, director of Yeshiva University Museum, related the famous story of Rav Kook’s reaction to the paintings of Rembrandt in the National Gallery in London. Rav Kook was deeply moved by the paintings, marveling at the quality of light that Rembrandt achieved. It seemed to him that Rembrandt had uncovered a portion of the “hidden light of creation.” If indeed Kook’s appreciation was correct that Rembrandt in his creativity had somehow accessed and had communicated a mystical understanding of the light G-d created on the first day and had set aside for the righteous in the World to Come, art could be considered a vital tool to draw one close to Torah.

Rabbi Brovender carried the insight even further in an analysis of an abstract painting by Mark Rothko. Brovender commented that the Rothko painting, one large field of maroon color in the upper half of the painting floating above a darker color on the bottom, demanded our attention. These large luminous works, often thought of as evoking a metaphysical experience,
compel our further investigation because, “he poured his neshama into these pictures.”

The very difficulty comprehending these abstract images causes us to struggle towards the painting’s meaning, revealing, according to Rabbi Brovender, that “Truth is not simple, even when you are holding on to the Torah.” We must struggle in the creative process of encounter, search and introspection whether we are learning Torah or viewing or creating art. This vital link was explored throughout the conference.

Rabbi Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University and Rosh Yeshiva of RIETS, commented on the traditional Hasidic receptivity to music and art through the concept of avodat Hashem b’gashmiut. The notion that we can serve G-d beyond the performance of commandments,
through all aspects of our lives including artistic creativity, set the stage for a presentation of Rav Soloveitchik’s views of art and aesthetics by Rabbi Shalom Carmy of Yeshiva University. The Rav’s views of art were complex and not entirely positive. There was the suspicion that art, the aesthetics of both the natural world and that created by man, could overwhelm the
intellect and hamper study of Torah.

Nevertheless, the Rav believed that Talmud Torah demanded imagination, spontaneity and creativity, citing the need for a “polyphonic diversity rather than the discipline of a military march.” Clearly, his emphasis on these qualities would imply his openness to creativity as a
Torah enhancing value. Most revealingly, Rav Soloveitchik felt that in prayer, “Only the aesthetic experience linked with the exalted may bring man into contact with G-d.”

After a series of hands-on-workshops that emphasized exploration of techniques as “means of
expression” and a break for lunch, the conference continued with presentations by educators and artists chaired by Gabriel Goldstein, curator and art historian at Yeshiva University Museum.

Tobi Kahn, artist and professor of Fine Arts at the School of Visual Arts, and artist in residence at SAR high school in Riverdale, addressed the need for art education in yeshivas. Ninety percent of students “don’t know how to see,” meaning that they are unable to encounter and interpret complex visual phenomena. By teaching students “how to see and raising their visual consciousness,” Kahn is expanding both their creative capacity in the visual world and in all areas of their intellectual life.

For Kahn, who advocated visual arts programs in yeshivas over at least the four years of high school, “the creative process is a gift from G-d,” whether learning Torah or making a painting. His objectives seemed to address both education of appreciators of art and creators of art. For him, “making art is an additional way of davening.” The intimate relationship between
creativity and spirituality is paramount. Creative interaction is the central process.

Rabbi Alan Stadtmauer, principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School, addressed issues of establishing a realistic curriculum for the study of art in high school, commenting that the study of art exposes adolescents to a certain kind of vulnerability that is common in both
experiencing art and seeking spirituality.

Rabbi Moshe Simkovich of the Stern Hebrew High School of Philadelphia echoed this sentiment. He spoke of a certain, nervous suspicion evidenced by parents about the use of art as an entranceway to spirituality. These educators understood that both the use of art as a
creative means to access spirituality and as a creative end in itself could be fraught with complex issues new to yeshiva education. Yet all agreed that it was well worth the effort to encourage this kind of creativity, at the very least, because of its potential for reinvigorating the
learning process and connection to Torah.

Towards the end of the afternoon session, Archie Rand speculated on the importance of the first Jewish artist, Bezalel. He noted that we are first told about him high up on Mount Sinai, just as G-d has finished commanding Moses about all the details of the construction of the Mishkan (Exodus 31:1). Bezalel, “filled with a G-dly spirit, wisdom, insight and knowledge” and his assistant Oholiab, “wise-hearted,” will craft “all that I have commanded you.” Jewish art is born at the very moment we are given the means to serve G-d. Within moments, Moses will descend the mountain and smash the tablets crafted by G-d Himself. But Jewish art and artists will live on, first in crafting the Tabernacle in the wilderness, then in the Temple and throughout the ages, making objects to fulfill commandments, illuminations for countless books, murals and mosaics for synagogues and finally, to the cornucopia of Jewish artwork we have today. As a “People of the Book,” immersed in the ethereal holy Torah, we focus on deeds and concepts, immune to the lure of crass objects and images. And yet, Jewish art is
the exception - born on Sinai – in which we engage in the aesthetics of the visual world.

The rabbis, educators and artists at this conference believe that the process of creatively engaging in the visual experience, appreciating and making art, can stimulate and nourish the spirituality of Torah. Surely then, that same process applied to specific Jewish content, the vast store of Torah, commentaries and Jewish knowledge, can give birth to an art that, itself will
become a form of Torah learning, a visual Midrash, a visual davening, even a visual Avodat Hashem.

Richard McBee is a writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with
comments at www.richardmcbee.com

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/from-amputation-to-wholeness-a-call-to-art-from-the-torah-world/2003/12/19/

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