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Creating Mutually Beneficial Dialogue Between Different Groups of Educators

I  recall that in my early teaching years, as a high school teacher I yearned to be able to learn from a variety of pedagogical techniques from elementary and middle school teachers. At the same time, in conversations with some elementary and middle school teachers, I repeatedly heard them seeking high school teachers who could enrich and deepen their content. Since making Aliyah, part of my work has taken me to visit many schools, from elementary to high schools. Although there have been exceptions, it seems like the generalizations I experienced years ago are, for the most part, still valid.And I wonder how we can create the kind of mutually beneficial dialogue between different groups of educators – those who have strong pedagogy and those who have deep and broad content knowledge – to create more meaningful, substantive, and pedagogically sound educational encounters for our students.

A Look Back and A Look Ahead at Megillah Reading. Who? How? And Why?

Many Talmudic debates result in practical Halacha, and guidance for everyday living for observant Jews. Society has evolved from generation to generation, but every few decades our brilliant ​Poskim ​find ways to make living a life of Halacha and observance that much more accessible. Often times when debating a specific topic, we get caught in the crosswinds of Hashkafa​, and how it relates to ​our ​particular circles, neighborhoods, or institutions. I find these debates particularly challenging in a school environment, where Hashkafa is hard to enforce, we cater to a range of families/communities, and our role as educators can be unclear.With Purim just behind us, we have almost a full year to think about and plan for what Purim can and should mean for our students and school communities.So many commentators write about why the Megillah was named only after Esther and not ​Megillat Mordechai V’Esther? Our sages teach us that “he wrote the Megillah” but only once Esther sends it out publicly, do the people accept and spread the story. Initially, the Jews were afraid to circulate the story because of how the nations of the world would react. It was due to the courage of Esther, who shared that the story was already recorded in the books of Media and Persia, that the people had no need to fear further consequences. Esther’s voice is what led to the Megillah being heard then and read today within our communities.I think about this every year as we prepare for Purim.The Talmud records in two places a woman’s role in reading the Megillah. In ​Masechet Arachin​ (2b – 3a) “All are fit to read the Megillah, to include what? To include women” and it references what was also written in ​Masechet Megillah​ (4a) “R’ Yehoshua ben Levi said women are obligated in the reading of the Megillah, for they too were involved in that miracle”. This sets off a debate amongst many Poskim​, the answer to which is largely dependent on your ​minhagim​ and community.In his works ​Chazon Ovadia Purim (נט), R’ Ovadia Yosef writes: ויישוב קטן שאין שם איש שיודע לקרוא את המגילה כהלכה, ויש שם אשה שיודעת לקרות המגילה, יכולים להתאסף באחד הבתים והאשה תעמוד בצד בצניעות, ותקרא להם בטעמיה.A small community that does not have a man who is able to read the Megillah properly (Halachically) and there is a woman who knows how to read the Megillah properly, they may gather in one of the homes and the woman will stand on one side modestly, and she may read the Megillah (with cantillation).R’ Ovadia is not the first to generate this ruling, but he is the most contemporary. ​Rashi, Rif, Rambam, ​and​ Ritva ​are some who also agree that a woman may fulfill this obligation, all while following the well-known principle that whoever is obligated to do a mitzvah can fulfill the obligation of all those who are obligated to do that mitzvah (based on ​Mishna Rosh Hashana 3:8).Every year when we celebrate Purim, we give credit to one of the main heroes of the story, but yet we are not willing to get behind some serious ​Poskim​, and make it mainstream to have women lead the reading of public readings of the Megillah. I think this message can be harmful for the growth of the young women in our schools. I think it would bring more meaning to many young girls to know that the mitzvah of reading the Megillah can be fulfilled by a woman.I recall hearing a shiur by R’ Ovadia’s son, R’ Yitzchak Yosef, who said that his father’s “wish was to edit many parts of his works (which were printed 30 plus years ago) and add to them more modern rulings.” He said that his father in his last few years acknowledged that this generation needs “many more leniencies”, and that following “stringent ​halachic​ views” is causing many people to be minimally involved with Judaism.If we do not accept the rulings where our Rabbis allowed leniencies, we will be forced to deal with the future ramifications of stronger leniencies. Rabbinic legislation allows and encourages tremendous flexibility when we are בשעת הדחק. I would like to argue that we move forward in a dignified way relying on multiple ​Poskim ​or we will inevitably get there in a pressing way.

Commitment and Recommitment to Tefilla

As an educator and a parent of teenagers, I am interested in hearing about practical suggestions for how to educate for commitment to the requirement to daven daily, while at the same time creating a feeling of freshness and inspiration in tefilla. The second half of sefer Shmot is a good jumping off point for talking about the nature of tefilla. The description of the people’s contribution to the mishkan in parshat Vayakhel seems contradictory. On the one hand, the Torah commands, “Take from among yourselves a terumah to Hashem,” and then, “every person whose heart inspires him should bring…” (Shmot 35:5) Was this giving required or voluntary? The Kli Yakar calls this “two types of giving,” one where it hurts your heart to give and the other where you give with a full heart. This is similar to the Talmudic discussion regarding tefilla, which was of course based on korbanot. Tefilla, like the gifts to the mishkan is required and at the same time fixed. Yet, Rabbi Eliezer says: One who makes his prayer “set,” his prayer does not constitute “pleading.” (Mishna Berachot 4:4) One interpretation of this statement is that tefilla needs to include some “chiddush.” The Rabbis understood that tefilla would sometimes feel more like a burden than a privilege, and therefore suggested that it should include something unique and voluntary so that it does not become robotic repetition. Perhaps this is reflected in the way the Rabbis describe tefillah עבודה שבלב, “service of the heart” (Talmud Bavli, Ta’anit 2a). It’s service, a requirement, but also in our hearts, in our own deepest desires. The giving to the mishkan and the dual nature of tefillah leave us with the thought, how can we help make tefilla in our schools, in our and communities and in ourselves feel both a mitzvah — an obligation — and also genuinely voluntary?Potential ideas for creating this balance in educational settings:I have been teaching tefilla this year to a group of adults. We have found that actively discussing the tefillot themselves and thinking deeply about the philosophical issues related to tefilla, has enriched our own tefilla experiences. Perhaps more time thinking and talking about tefilla is one way to keep us committed and at the same time enthusiastic about tefilla. Creating opportunities for students to work on new ways to connect with parts of tefilla through subjects that they find interesting and relevant. I’m interested in hearing about other ideas and suggestions.

Dealing with Anxiety and Depression in Yeshiva Day Schools

In both my professional and personal experiences, I have been seeing more cases of kids having their normative academic careers taking hits because they are suffering from anxiety and depression.After decades in the field of education, I do feel that this is becoming a more pervasive problem, but I am not under the impression that mainstream yeshiva day schools have any way of helping students other than kindness and suggestions of outside resources for families.I am also not aware of any non-mainstream yeshiva programs geared to students who have emotional issues but not educational ones.Is anyone else also experiencing these frustrations? Is this a trend? Is the yeshiva day school system in the loop on this and prepared to deal with it or is this destined to be outsourced to secular boutique schools?

The Dress Code Struggle

A common struggle for day schools is adherence to a dress code or uniform.  These are some of the challenges as I see them:*We often use vague terms in our school handbooks to explain the logic using terms like “modesty” or “orthodox standards.”*Generally, the issues of non-compliance connected to dress in school affects the female population more than the males and often triggers those students to feel religiously condemned.*Teachers tend to take two different paths to deal with this issue. Some teachers and administrators, fearing an adversarial relationship with their students (or a hostile relationship with the parents), tend to turn a blind eye to consistent infractions while others become so frustrated with the seemingly never-ending violations, that they become angry with their students which in turn affects the student-teacher relationship.While this topic is not a new one in our schools, it has been on my mind lately. Recently, Lilly Gelman, a day school graduate (and full disclosure- my daughter) wrote a piece for the Forward titled  “It’s Time Orthodox Jews Stop Equating Modesty with Self Respect. https://forward.com/author/lilly-gelman/She writes how the lines between halachik infraction in dress and character shaming are blurred together so that students (in her case specifically females) hear a message that choosing to dress outside the uniform or dress code of their school or institutions invites an attack on their personal integrity. It is painful to read about her negative experiences as a high school student. While she is just one person with one experience, her voice speaks for many who feel the same way.In my own classroom, I choose to enforce the school dress code without stressing any link to halacha. Lettering on your sweatshirt or a shirt without a collar are of the same level of violation as a mini skirt or coming to class without a kippah. There is no punishment for violation, but there is a quarterly incentive for compliance (5 points on a test or an exemption from a quiz).I wonder if we should give thought to doing away with the halachik dress code in our schools. Perhaps this is a battle that we don’t want to fight with our students during these years. Maybe the focus should be on their connection to Torah, to Judaism and helping them navigate the tough years of adolescence so they leave high school as mindful, thoughtful Jews. As educators, we have a limited amount of time with our students. We pick and choose in our curriculum knowing that we cannot teach them everything, and we hope that we instill in them a thirst to learn more when they leave high school. Maybe along those lines, we should choose to overlook outward dress for now and focus on their “insides”- their growth as caring, committed young adults. While I know this suggestion would need to be “unpacked” by each school as they see fit, I believe it is one to seriously consider as we move forward in Jewish education.