Noah Moves to Boston: The Beginnings of Grad School

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And thus begins part two of the NoahBlog epic: My move to Boston, MA. Next week, I begin grad school at Brandeis University, in their Hornstein program for Jewish Professional Leadership. (I'll end up with two Masters degrees - a Nonprofit-focused MBA, and an MA in Jewish Professional Leadership.) Today I fly from San Francisco to Boston. As I write this, I'm sitting in the airport, watching this 777 (sadly, not my plane) get loaded with food and luggage, which is basically the most exciting thing ever... 

777 SFO.jpg

Once I arrive, I'll move into my new apartment near Porter Square. (If you're not familiar with Boston, it's the slightly hipper area outside of the actual city, where a lot of young professionals and grad students live.) My roommate is a new UCSC grad named Hannah, who's also starting the Hornstein program this fall. While I haven't met her, various sources have told me that she's cool. J We'll spend the next couple of days setting up the apartment, and finding a sofabed that will fit up the staircase without smashing through a window...

Practically, I'm obviously very excited about these new developments in my life. On the more philosophical side, I've noticed that several friends and colleagues have recently written about their impending moves as new chapters in their lives. I see it differently - this grad school experience is simply an extension of the work I've been doing over the last three years (really, since high school). I've been finding innovative and exciting ways to teach about Judaism, and meanwhile I've run Jewish projects, organizations, and marketing efforts of various types and sizes.

The Hornstein program is the perfect opportunity for me to continue my growth in those areas, and learn more about formal budgeting and accounting. I'm also incredibly excited to learn alongside Jewish professionals from all around the country. And most importantly, I'm traveling with Cookie, one of my oldest stuffed animals.


SF Symphony: Music for Ordinary Citizens

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Today's outdoor SF Symphony concert in Justin Herman Plaza was fun and exciting, but for vastly different reasons than their usual concerts. The amplified sound quality was impeccable, and the playing was great, but - most importantly - the Symphony got to share their music with a much wider audience than they normally access.

The concert was markedly informal, even for famously-lax conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and its outdoor nature added a fresh flavor of unpredictability. At one point, Tilson Thomas held a particular note for 15 seconds when the wind flipped a page in his score. A few moments later, he continued conducting with his right hand, while reaching over and grabbing a binder clip from the concertmaster's music stand.

The general atmosphere of the concert was also dramatically unpredictable. Sirens and horns mixed periodically with Beethoven and Berlioz, and bells from the Ferry Building delayed the start of two separate pieces (at the hour and half-hour). Add that to the mixed audience of families, businesspeople on their lunch breaks, schoolchildren, homeless people, and one guy in a baseball cap tap-dancing along to the music, and you've got yourself a cross-section of San Francisco's population.

Still, I'm not sure that the schoolchildren were a good choice for this event. While I (obviously) encourage schools to involve students in the arts, especially music, these students were utterly uninterested in the concert. Instead, the students - from the Edison Charter Academy - amused themselves by pushing each other and walking back and forth across the pathway. I don't blame them, sitting in direct sun in the broiling heat, but I do blame their teachers, clicking away on their Blackberries and completely ignoring both the concert and their students. Perhaps the Edison Charter Academy should do a better job of choosing locations for their field trips, and the teachers (do you need a credential to teach at a charter school?) should pay more attention to their kids' experience. It's never a bad thing to admit that a field trip isn't working, and take the kids to go look at the water instead...

(Cross-posted with an alternate ending at the East Bay Arts and Culture Review.)

JWA Institute for Educators - Day 5 and Closing Thoughts

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The conference is now over, and my final thoughts are as much about the participants as about the content and the new curriculum. I was struck by the passion and positivity of every one of the participants, even the ones who were from generations older than mine. The set of participants struck such a contrast with my own Hebrew school teachers, who were largely stuffy, academic, and boring.

Everyone I met at the Institute has such a passion for Jewish education. They're the sort of teachers that students automatically love, and want to learn from, and the sort of teachers who can inspire students to develop a lifelong connection to Judaism. True, it's somewhat of a self-selected bunch (only the coolest teachers would want to come to a conference about Judaism in the Civil Rights movement), but I got the feeling that these teachers will effectively spread the curriculum throughout the community.

That task will be easier because of the diversity among participants. They represented many different kinds of schools, including day schools, supplemental schools, Hebrew high programs, youth groups, and secular schools (not to mention summer camps), across most of the mainstream and alternative movements. The participants also spanned a remarkable age range, which led to a tremendous panoply of perspectives. I'm so excited for each of the participants to bring the curriculum to all of their communities, and to spread the good word.

Finally, I was struck by the passion and excitement of the conference's coordinators, Emily and Judith, who had also written the curriculum. It was clear that they were genuinely enthused about the material, and that developing these lesson plans had been fun for them. As an educator, I've discovered that so many curricula are dry and overly academic, but Living the Legacy overflows with the liveliness of the movement itself, and the vibrancy of this organization that decided to explore Jewish women's role in the Civil Rights movement. I can't wait to start trying the lesson plans next week at camp (look for some updates here), and for this amazing new curriculum to spread throughout the American Jewish education community.

JWA Institute for Educators - Day 4

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Today was a little slower on the workshop front, but I got to do some serious thinking about implementing the Living the Legacy curriculum. I'm planning to use a three-pronged approach to share the lessons with the different organizations for which I work.

As soon as I return to Camp Tawonga this Sunday, I'll start running the lessons as single-block programs. I've picked a few (focusing on participation in the civil rights movement, and general race/oppression philosophy), and adjusted them to fit the tone and time constraints of summer camp.

After camp, I'll use the lessons in my 7th grade classroom in Walnut Creek. The curriculum is a split between the mitzvot and family history, so a number of the lessons will fit nicely with our mid-century Jewish life unit. I'll also use a series of lessons to lead into our experiential service learning activities.

Concurrently, I'm teaching a Jewish American music class at Oakland Midrasha. The lessons that I've chosen will illustrate the importance of music as a tool for social change, and also provide cultural context for a number of mid-century American musical innovations.

I'm also excited about sharing the curriculum with my colleagues around the Bay Area. As soon as the web site goes live, I'll suggest individual lessons for certain classes and schools, and I'll also familiarize teachers with the resources on the JWA web site. It has so many useful (and interactive) learning tools, like amazing numbers of primary source documents, and it highlights in a unique way the contributions of women to history.

Also today: The JWA is in the early stages of developing a resource to engage girls before their bat mitzvahs. The idea is to help them find the ceremony's meaning (and the meaning of Judaism) beforehand, so that it's more than just a party with some memorizing tacked on. The project will likely include ideas for innovative bat mitzvah projects, contemporary female Jewish role models, and activities to help girls connect with their heritage and family history. Can't wait for this to come around!

JWA Institute for Educators - Day 3

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The highlight of today's program was a session on recording oral histories, culminating in a live oral history interview of Freedom Rider Judy Frieze Wright. This was a new experience for me, because I've never (to my knowledge) been in the same room as someone who actively participated in the Civil Rights movement by going south.

I particularly enjoyed the part where Ms. Frieze Wright talked about the impact of her Freedom Ride. Riding the bus, and during her monthlong stay in jail, she had no sense of the importance of her actions. It was only later, she said, once integration began to take hold, that she realized the significance of what they'd done. She recognized how oppression had changed since the time of her childhood, and she knew that real progress was being made.

The tone of today's interview was markedly different from that of Holocaust-survivor interviews, which are the only oral histories that I've seen conducted live. (I used a number of early-1900s Portland-area oral histories for my senior thesis, but they had been done many years earlier.) I suppose the difference between the Holocaust and the Civil Rights movement is that the latter succeeded, so participants can allow themselves to see the value (the meaning?) in the pain, struggle and danger that they endured. I'm not entirely satisfied with this explanation of the difference, but it feels necessary in my mind to distinguish between the two common "categories" of survivors of recent Jewish history.

Also today (though unrelated): I had a great discussion with three other educators about experiential service learning, and how to adapt the Living the Legacy curriculum to such situations. We talked about the point of service learning, and how to facilitate real sustainable change (instead of simple one-time community service). We also brainstormed ways to interface with community organizations in need, to work productively and constructively, and avoid coming off as patronizing. Allison (an educator from the south) put together an amazing series of four lessons to prep the service learning experience, and I can't wait to try it this year.

Personal note: Night out in Boston today. Blueberry beer (served with real blueberries in it) next to Fenway Park, and canolis in the North End. I still don't want to live here, but if I did, the North End would SO be my neighborhood.

JWA Institute for Educators - Jewish Feminism

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Today at lunch, I sat in on an optional session exploring Jewish feminism. It seems that the original generation of feminists (the First Wave?) thinks that women today actively oppose the "feminist" label, or identify as "stiletto feminists." (Did we just get that term from West Wing?)

From my perspective, working at Camp Tawonga and the Midrasha teen school, I see feminism on a daily basis, but in a new incarnation. My friends and I are proud to identify as feminists, but women face different challenges today than they did in the Sixties and Seventies. Women have the vote, and they can work at (almost) any job, and they face far less explicit challenges than they did 40 years ago.

Still, today's women, and especially today's teenage girls, face a male-dominated culture of expectations and double standards. They are bombarded by a fairly consistent set of media images telling them what to wear, how to carry themselves, and how they're supposed to act. This, I suppose, is the new liberation that women need - they must have the freedom to interact with the world in a genuine and positive manner, free from the negative and constant influences of today's popular media.

From a Jewish perspective, this problem is not nearly as visible. At least among Jewish organizations (in the Bay Area), religious observance has become consistently egalitarian. Women have not only the freedom to participate and lead, but the expectation that women are consistently in charge of Jewish organizations. This is in marked contrast with the secular world, where women still face obstacles to their advancement, and too few women are running companies and organizations.

This is the value of Jewish summer camps. Mine, in particular. We consciously choose our language to empower our female campers (saying "you all" instead of "you guys"), and we constantly challenge assumptions that "that's a boys' sport," or "girls aren't strong enough to lift that." One of my favorite lines is "I'm not holding the door for you because you're a girl - I'm just doing it to be nice."

In fact, our female empowerment programs have come so far (a Red Tent to discuss adolescence, programs on women's role in society) that we've become developing "male empowerment" as well. It looks different, frequently focusing on competition and aggression, and the Spectrum of Masculinity, but it's a welcome part of Camp Tawonga's thoughtful and intentional culture, where all of our interactions, decisions, and programs are carefully measured to benefit the entire community.

I realized at today's lunch conversation, with educators from around that country, that the Bay Area may be unique in this regard. They reported that the young people in their communities shy away from the "feminist" label, and that they no longer see the importance of fighting for women's rights. How fortunate I am to live in an area where I've been brought up to recognize and fight the institution oppression that all women experience, and to identify as a feminist. 

JWA Institute for Educators - Day 2

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Today was the first full day of the conference, and two sessions were particularly remarkable. Debra Schultz, the author of Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement, spoke about the people in her book, and detailed the importance of the struggles in the civil rights movement. She also provided some fascinating insight into the sources in her book, and the choices she made while constructing her narrative.

Ms. Schultz is not just a skilled academic, but a dynamic presenter as well. You get the sense that her scholarship has a deeper significance for her, and that she really enjoys her work. She also had some comments on the pre-release American Experience civil rights documentary that they screened for us later this evening. (It's coming out in spring of 2011, and it's crazy solid.)

I also got excited about a session where we were paired with another educator in a similar teaching situation. I worked with Abby Sendak of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, where she is a faculty advisor for the Cornerstone Fellowship (of third-year Jewish sleepaway summer camp counselors). It was great to theorize about how we can tweak the lessons to work in a summer camp environment, both time-wise and tone-wise, and she had some great ideas for a longer-term camp program focusing on social justice and activism. I'm super-excited about the possibilities, and I can't wait to get back to camp to begin testing these lessons!

Also today, I was featured on the JWA blog "Jewesses with Attitude." I'm not a Jewess, but I gave a really great video quote during lunch, and they posted it with some fancy titles:

Technology update: I'm now on Twitter so I can tweet my live updates during this conference. (Really, I just got excited about this hashtag business, because it means that someone is guaranteed to read it.) Check me out @noahzaves, and follow me - I really do seek technological validation and approval. :-)

JWA Institute for Educators - Day 1

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Today was the first day of the Jewish Women's Archive's Institute for Educators. They wrote a new curriculum for Jewish high school students, about Judaism, social justice, and the civil rights movement, and I was selected to come to Boston to learn how to use the curriculum.

The sessions today were mostly introductory, but it was fun to get to know the other 24 participants. I knew one of them from Berkeley Midrasha, but I'm closely connected to several others. (I remain convinced that Jewish geography requires only 3 degrees of separation.)

In the after-dinner program, we each presented an artifact from an important woman in our life, and I showed some antique spice containers from my grandmother's kitchen. (Note: This wasn't a stunt. I actually pulled them off her shelf last Friday.) They were different levels of old (two were pretty old, one was old, and one was super-old), and the spices inside had definitely tasted like sawdust for a while. I used the spice containers to describe how awesome my grandmother is, and the things in her life that she's experienced as she's moved from place to place.

We're exploring the curricula in more detail tomorrow, but I read a few of them in preparation for the Institute. My favorite part (so far) is the stories of individual participants in the civil rights movement, and their reflections (both currently and at the time) on what was happening. One particular passage blew me completely away, from 60's activist Paul Cowan about his activist mother:

"She was too much of an egalitarian to admit she subscribed to the religious idea that the Jews were a chosen people. Yet the subtext of her words carried that message. We were chosen to suffer; chosen to achieve brilliance; chosen to wage a ceaseless war for social justice. Indeed, to her, the struggle for justice was nothing less than a commandment, even though she had no interest at all in the concept of halacha - the intricate system of laws that have bound the Jewish nation together for five thousand years. I don't think she could imagine living without fighting for the oppressed."

Isn't that amazing? I can't wait to learn more about these lessons, and get to know these incredible educators!

How the Rays Beat the Yankees

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The New York Philharmonic is arguably the best classical ensemble in America, perhaps the world. Critics have revered it for more than a century, and you can always depend on the New York Phil for a clean, accurate, skillful performance.

But if the Ramones were to hop up on stage next to the Phil with a couple of amplifiers, they could easily drown out the entire orchestra. Less skill, less training, less experience, more noise and energy.

Such was the case with the Yankees-Tampa Bay match this past week. Where the Yankees would hold, the Rays would run for the extra base. Where the Yankees would wait, the Rays would aggressively swing at a pitch. The Rays and the Yankees were essentially playing two different games, and the interaction between the two was telling.

In each game, the Rays scored in the first couple innings, staying one step ahead of the Yankees. Against a team like Boston, or even the Mets this weekend, the Yankees are playing at the same speed, with the same energy. But the Rays play a faster, more dangerous brand of baseball, so they were able to rush past the Yankees. The New York Phil just got overtaken by the Ramones.

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The Brightness of Worship

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Last night, I had the unique opportunity to visit an Orthodox synagogue while substituting for an Oakland Midrasha class. The building was cool to see, including the mikvah, and I enjoyed learning more about the Orthodox philosophy, but the rabbi said one thing that really resonated with me.

We were sitting in a small chapel, and the rabbi asked us what looked different from our own (non-Orthodox) synagogues. One kid, probably jokingly, remarked that the walls are white. But the rabbi said that there was an important story there: the walls used to be paneled with a very dark wood, and he pointed out some trim that was still dark. But all of the paneling had been painted a bright white.

Why? Because you shouldn't feel closed-in and dreary when you worship. You should feel happy and inspired, and bright paint on the walls directly affects the mood within. This struck me, because the synagogue I grew up going to was a prime example. Dark wood paneling, dark red velvet seats, only a few dim lights for the entire sanctuary. I felt incapable of joy when I was inside, so I stopped going.

When I returned from college, I was surprised by a newly-completed renovation of the sanctuary. Someone I know says it looks trendy like a hotel lobby, but I'm in love with all of the bright, happy colors. Tan carpets and walls, light-colored wood on the pews, and enough lighting to - OMG - read a prayerbook. You can't repair a synagogue's sprititual base with a simple remodel, but it sure didn't hurt.