Sunday, December 30, 2012

Students Weigh In on Searching for a "Violence Gene"

I asked students in my Hot Topics English class, a class that has spent the fall semester debating myriad aspects of medical ethics, to read the following article:

Seeking Answers in Genome of Gunman

Then I asked students the following question, which they answered on our school wiki (The wiki is password-protected as students' full names are on it, so I cannot publicly share access to it):

Explain whether we as a society should pursue knowledge of the genomes of violent offenders. Using at least three facts you learned from the article and references to the eugenics programs of the early 20th century, answer in one paragraph on this post. 

Cite the article according to MLA standards.

I carefully showed students how to cite according to MLA Standards. As you can see, students are working out grammar and other errors, but the responses so far have been thoughtful and interesting. Here are two:

Student response #1:

I believe that society should study the genomes of violent offenders not in order to stigmatize them, but to shape their upbringing and environment in ways that could avoid the possible impact of their genetic predisposition. We are moving into a future where it is possible that newborns will have their DNA analyzed at birth, and their parents will be giving a list of suggested ways to create an environment that avoids potential problem areas. For example, if a baby is found to have a genetic predisposition to diabetes, the parents might be told to avoid sugar in the child’s diet. The article quotes scientists who are opposed to studying the DNA of violent mass murderers such as Adam Lanza, who recently killed 27 people in Newton, Ct., including 20 young children, as this would be the first time researchers study the DNA of a mass killer. Yet people are worried that there might be a repeat of the eugenics programs of the early 20th century, where because of the belief that criminal behavior was inherited, men with a extra Y chromosome were sterilized, but because of a lack or proof the program was stopped. Therefore, this information, if a genetic link to criminal violence is found, does not mean that it would be used against a child, but rather as a way of helping the child. Furthermore, if people are found to be genetically at risk for violence, it could be used at parole hearings, as noted in the article. Just this week a man who had been in jail for killing his own grandmother and eventually paroled, set a trap to purposely murder volunteer firefighters, who rushed to help put out the fire that this man had purposely set to kill. If the parole hearing knew he had a violent gene, they might have not released him. 

Student response #2:

After reading this article, my personal opinion on weather society should research and look into the genes of violent criminals is that I do not think we should pursue that idea. Having listened to both sides of the argument, I firmly believe that It is, for lack of a better term, a waste of time. One example that swayed me in this direction is in the article where the skeptics say: “there are likely to be hundreds of genes involved in extreme violent behavior, not to mention a variety of environmental influences, and that all of these factors can interact in complex and unpredictable ways.”(Kolata). This totally contradicts the argument that it is a genetic illness/disorder. Also Dr. Robert C. Green, a geneticist and neurologist at Harvard Medical School says: “It is almost inconceivable that there is a common genetic factor” and “I think it says more about us that we wish there was something like this. We wish there was an explanation.”(Kolata). I think there is a lot of truth to this statement. The whole reason for science is to explain things; it is human nature to want to understand why something happens or how something works. I also think that this is a purpose that religion also serves. When people cannot look to science to explain something, they use religion as a coping mechanism to “explain the unexplainable” if you will. One last idea that arose for me, which I found compelling, was that even if—hypothetically—we do find some significant gene mutation that leads to violence; what would we be able to do about it? If someone has a 2 percent, or ten percent, or even a twenty percent chance to be violent; what would we do with that information? We certainly cannot jump to any conclusions because the person has not done anything wrong yet. The only way is to take out that gene mutation and we are not at a point yet in science that we can do that yet. 

To add to the discussion about how society should deal with crime and punishment, I also recommend having students read the following three articles, all from the New York Times Magazine:

Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?

Greg Ousley is Sorry for Killing His Parents. Is That Enough?

Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?

Interdisciplinary Studies at Yavneh Academy

As a proponent of interdisciplinary studies -- I'm Coordinator of Interdisciplinary Studies at The Frisch School in Paramus, NJ -- and a parent at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, NJ, I was obviously excited to see interdisciplinary studies be implemented at my children's school last week, on Christmas Day, December 25. The interdisciplinary program was called YID, Yavneh Integration Day, and the acronym is appropriate, since YID means Jew in Yiddish. Though the ethnonym has sometimes been employed pejoratively by anti-Semites, I like Yavneh's re-appropriation of the term for use in a manner that shows Jews engaging in lively and meaningful ways with the world around us.

Here is Yavneh's summary of its integration day:

With December 25th having fallen on the weekend the past two years, this was the first chance in three years for our Middle School to have its annual Yom Iyun [Day of Learning] on that date. 

After tefilla [prayer] and a delicious breakfast prepared by Terry Infield, our students participated in our first-time ever YID - Yavneh Integration Day, a day of learning across the disciplines with one unified focus.  Our theme yesterday [on the 25th] was "The Jewish experience in exile - History, Halacha [Jewish law], and Happy New Year." Under the guidance of both Judaic and General studies teachers, our students spent time learning about the reason for our long sojourn in exile, how we relate to non-Jewish holidays (both religious and secular), and about the history of the American Soviet Jewry movement on commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Freedom Day march on Washington.  The sessions combined original source material, historical accounts, and video footage in order to provide our students with an broad understanding of some of the issues and challenges that we face in exile.

Following the learning portion of our day, almost 60 students joined us at Bowler City for a bowl-a-thon to raise money for three important causes: relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy; One Israel Fund's program to provide coffee and cake to soldiers protecting Gush Etzion; and our own Student Council.  Our students had an amazing time and raised roughly $800 for the various causes.

Reflections on The Frisch Africa Encounter

I was perusing my Twitter PLN as The Frisch Africa Encounter ended, and so I was reminded of an important step in the PBL process: reflection. The sophomore grade and I had been doing so much hands-on and non-traditional learning throughout the Africa project that I decided to survey my class of sophomores the old-fasioned way: by having a class discussion and -- gasp! -- writing their reactions on the whiteboard. Ken Robinson, forgive me.

Above are the pictures I took of the responses. Since I don't want to strain your eyesight, I'll rewrite them here:

1) Image of Africans changed -- Kelvin [a boy from Sierra Leone who repurposed tech garbage into technology he needed and then spent three weeks at MIT under the sponsorship of an MIT student] was innovative. American kids don't have to be innovative, because we have everything given to us.
2) We [American teenagers] become more productive eventually, because we have education. We also remain healthy because we are vaccinated and can eat good food and have clean water.
3) We have more time, because we're not consumed with gaining the necessities of life [e.g., food, water].
4) We were unaware of the religious persecution in Africa.
5) Somalia can't fix itself because of its religious leaders.
6) We live much farther from the natural world [than do Africans].

Here's the consensus about what's good and bad about African vs. American life:

Bad: We're disconnected from the natural world, from our origins. We're addicted to technology.
Good: We're able to advance with our technologies and capitalism.

One student summed up the wrap-up session with this: "I didn't really think that I was learning anything while the project was going on, but now that it's over and we discussed it, I can see how much I actually learned." [Should I just give this student an A for the rest of the year?]

The students also assessed the way they learned throughout The Frisch Africa Encounter. They loved the type of whole-body learning they engaged in. I teach one section out of seven in the sophomore grade, and my students are Honors students, but a history teacher surveyed her non-Honors classes as well, and the student responses I saw also revealed how much the kids loved the type of engaged and active learning they were doing. They also loved contributing to the project using the skills and passions they had: art, music, writing, technology, fundraising, etc. In short, students understood they were learning in a new way, and they liked and appreciated learning by doing rather than learning by lecture.

The class and I have returned to our discussion of The Poisonwood Bible, which we had not been able to finish before the night of the Africa event, on December 18. I'm happy discussion of the book was interrupted (I gave up a lot of class time to the whole-body learning the Africa project demanded). Now that the students have absorbed the lessons of the overall unit, they can analyze the book with a more discerning eye. 

Example: At the end of the book, a character who has died and has become one with the African forest narrates and sends the message that the white, Western world has to, in essence, get over itself and understand where Africa is coming from and that its values are different from Western ones. 

A student asked why we should at all help Africa. Why did we do the project? Shouldn't we just leave Africa alone already? It was interesting to see the students reprocess the project and arrive at the conclusion -- again! -- that helping means giving Africans the opportunities to live in the same healthy and productive ways that Americans do, but doesn't mean arriving, as Nathan Price in The Poisonwood Bible does, thinking that our American way of life is inherently better than the way the Africans live. We also discussed in a deeper way than we had at the beginning of the unit the Western world's exploitation of Africa and its resources and our obligation to make reparations, so to speak.

Students continue to be enthusiastic about Africa. One day I walked into my classroom to find "We love Africa" written on the board. Another day, a student announced that the Discovery Channel was showing a documentary about animal life in Africa. He found the trailer online, we watched it and gave ourselves homework to watch the documentary. I couldn't be more pleased about the enthusiasm for learning that has developed. The students want to learn not because they have a test, but because they're excited about this new world that has opened up to them and want to understand all about it. They see that though they learned a lot already, what they've learned is just the tip of the iceberg, and they want to know more!

I'll end with one more student response: A boy came up to me after our reflection session and said he was overwhelmed. There is so much to do in Africa. "How can we possibly make any difference? There's so much work to be done," he said. I recited a saying from Ethics of our Fathers, a famous compilation of Jewish wisdom: "It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to exempt yourself from doing it." We then discussed how the sophomore grade had already begun the work of helping Africa by engaging in the fundraiser for Innovation: Africa. 

In sum, then, as much as I love opening my students' eyes to new ideas and new ways of learning, I continue to be touched, awed and humbled by the responses they have when learning about the world they inhabit. 

To read the blog post about The Frisch Africa Encounter, go to:

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

On the American Dream: Sub-mission


I start with a tree, a coat, and a frog
No coupons there
But a yearning for God

Who can’t always be seen

He’s mostly known through a fog
By the back,
By those who will flog

In His name; Now your name in a log
In a cabin that’s poor
Where you’ll hog

Books and dreams and launch a monologue
That will end
In a field, at an address: Boom!

There starts the dialogue
Between you – the white ghost –
And me – the girl from the smog.

Because you know the Truth:
The Facts, the Dates, the Experts
But I know that Moses defeated Og

And that God speaks in stories
                 He doesn’t blog. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Frisch Africa Encounter: December 18, 2012

Summary of the Unit

The Frisch Africa Encounter, which was held this year on December 18, 2012, is the culmination of a month-long interdisciplinary unit on Africa during which sophomores:

* read either _The Poisonwood Bible_ or _Little Bee_
* research a topic about Africa in history
* learn about the integration of Ethiopian Jewry
* discuss the issue of Sudanese refugees in Israel today during Hebrew class
* create a green art project
* conduct a green-a-thon fundraiser for Innovation: Africa, an organization that uses sustainable Israeli technologies to improve life in Africa. The organization has UN status and has helped close to half a million people in Africa.

The video above, made by the Frisch sophomores and edited by Lisa, summarizes beautifully what the grade gained from the interdisciplinary unit. Read more about the night's presentations below:

The African rainforest and jungle as it was being created by the students
Of course, we had to include mamba snakes in our jungle,
since the mamba figures so prominently in _The Poisonwood Bible_
History teacher Ms. Kaplan and Hebrew teacher Morah Dafna played crucial roles in the curriculum of the month.
They pose in front of the repurposed art projects, which Mrs. Mantell, below with two students,
had the sophomores complete

Student-made art for the savannah portion of our African "safari"

For the evening, the sophomores created an African savannah and rainforest/jungle for which they drew animals, painted a jeep, decorated the school stage and dictated an audio tour in English and Hebrew using the ShowMe app. They also made PowerPoints or videos of their history research project and displayed their repurposed art.

Flickr Photos

Check out the photos, with descriptive explanations, from the evening:

The Frisch Africa Encounter on Flickr

Audio Tours using the ShowMe App

Here are links to the ShowMes of the safari/jungle audio tour. We have two English versions, one recorded by a female student and one by a male, and we have a condensed Hebrew version written by Morah Dafna and recorded by a female student:

Safari/Jungle Audio: Male

Safari/Jungle Audio: Female

Safari/Jungle Audio: Hebrew 

Africa PowerPoint

When the evening began, parents sat down in the auditorium where the following PowerPoint was looping as a playlist prepared by a sophomore played songs inspired by African music:

The Onion Video

During the student presentation that began the night, parents heard first from a group of sophomores who explained how learning about Africa connected to their curriculum and life. Sophomores began by pointing out that the first genre they studied this year in English was satire. Then we showed sophomore parents the following video, which never fails to get laughs:

Student Presentation Script

Here is the script from the student presentation:

The Frisch Africa Encounter 2012 Student Presentation

Student Work

Student PowerPoint

Student Video on Why Innovation Africa?

This video nicely shows why we considered Innovation: Africa an appropriate organization for which to raise money. Nice job on the video, Ayelet and Rachel!

Student Video

And here is a video two sophomores made that compares an American city with an African village:

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Freshman Greek Week: Cougars Draw the Line

From Personal Identity to Cultural and Religious Identity

From December 6-14, Frisch ran Greek Week for the freshmen, a time when Frisch Cougars learn to draw the line between Judaism and secular culture. At the launch of Freshman Greek Week, I tied what we were about to do to the freshmen integrated theme for the year: Identity. A couple of weeks earlier, at the launch of the freshman integrated theme, each freshman had written a word that described him- or herself, and I compiled those words onto a board on (thank you to my sister, educator Smadar Goldstein for the introduction to

Freshman 2012 Identity Board

The freshmen had also each chosen a poem that revealed something about their identities and posted their responses to the poem on our school wiki. I showed the grade some of their classmates' interesting and thoughtful responses, such as these two:

Response 1:

Now if you listen closely
I'll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
'Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

By nature I'm a worrier. I worry about peace in Israel, homelessness, the enviroment, and health issues. I realize that all of these problems can't be solved by me alone. The issues are difficult ones and can only be addressed by governments, communities, and individuals, all working together. After the most recent natural disaster, hurricane Sandy, many people were left without homes, heat, or power. My family and I spent a day in Far Rockaway distributing hot dogs and hamburgers to many people in need. At that moment I realized how fortunate I was that I belonged to a famiy and a community that was able to give back to groups of families in desperate need. It was a life altering experience.

Response 2:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth

As I begin my high school career, I now realize that I must choose an identity or "path" to guide me through not only high school but life. I know that I need to find a good path, one that can help me achieve goals, and help me become the person I want to be. Alternatively, the path I hope to avoid is the one that will take me in the wrong direction towards mediocrity and failure. Throughout the next four years I will be creating a path for myself, and I know how important it is to choose the right friends, achieve good grades in classes, be a good person, and the importance of respecting others. This poem clearly stresses this point, and how necessary it is for each person to choose their path and identity wisely.

Cosmology Myths

I then pointed out that part of their quest to understand who they were as individuals, both as people in the Western world and as Jews, included a look at where they had come from. In history, which is an integrated class of World and Jewish history, the freshmen were, during Chanukah time, studying the ancient Greeks and the effect that Hellenism had on Jewish life.

I proceeded with my slideshow, which compared Greek and Biblical cosmology stories. Here is what the Greeks believe:

Zeus defeats his father Cronos, Time, who is king of the Titan race of gods
The Titans represented natural disasters
Zeus tames natural disasters and is leader of the gods
Zeus rules the sky; his brothers Poseidon and Hades rule the sea and underworld

Once we took a look at the Greek story, I played this Disney favorite, which shows what a good job the Magic Kingdom did in conveying the Greek cosmology myth:

We then compared the Greek story to the Biblical one, which has a distinctly different feel because:

God is “eyeh asher eyeh”: He was, is and will be: timeless
God creates the world ALONE
God creates the world through words, not struggle
God rules the world ALONE

The Influence of Hellenistic Culture

The Torah does have key distinctions between its cosmology story and the Greeks', but as we know that doesn't mean the Jews were free from the influence of the very tempting Hellenized world. Here is a wall painting in a synagogue from the third century CE, in what is now Syria but was called Dura-Europos and was a place where Romans, Jews and pagans lived and influenced each other. The Jews were influenced by the art of Roman wall painting, which they copied by painting scenes from Tanakh all over the walls of their synagogue:

The Egyptians chase the Israelites through the Red Sea,
only to have it collapse on them when Moses follows God's instructions
The freshmen and I debated the inclusion of the hands at the top of the painting. Most were calm about the fact that the work showed God's hands; they reasoned that the anthropomorphism was simply a visual representation of the Biblical text. In fact, they argued that had the work NOT included God's hands, people might think it had been MOSES who had performed the miracle of the parting of the sea, something the Torah text explicitly does NOT want people to think!

However, the class was not as sanguine about this work:

The synagogue at Hammath-Tiberias.
When you visit it, treat yourself after to a meal at Deck's.
You won't be sorry!
This work is a floor mosaic from the late third or early fourth century CE, when Tiberias was the seat of the Sanhedrin. The mosaic at the top of the picture makes the ruin recognizable as a Jewish place: an ark is in the middle of the mosaic, and the ark is flanked by two menorot, which are in turn flanked by a lulav and etrog and a shofar and censer. Below the mosaic of the ark is a zodiac, a common enough occurrence in a synagogue from Late Antiquity; however, this mosaic depicts Helios the sun god in its center. Most of the students agreed the Jews of this synagogue had crossed a line, had ventured into the territory of idolatry and had not been true to Jewish values.

We then discussed how easy it is to cross a line into forbidden areas of secular culture. A good text to use to discuss this further is Rabbi Michael Broyde's letter about Modern Orthodoxy, which states that we are allowed to enjoy aspects of secular culture and use them to become closer to God, but we can only use those parts of secular culture that are not antithetical to Torah values: 


Greek and Torah Heroes

My next session during Freshman Greek Week was about Greek and Torah heroes. In short, the Greeks in their stories often succumb to fatalism and therefore heroes fall tragically, but Judaism does not have the same fatalistic view of the world, no matter what Qohelet says [for a discussion on that, see Greeks, Qohelet and Genesis]. 

Here's the slideshow in which I compare Greek and Torah heroes who are on the DL with foot/leg injuries:

The Wrap Up

This year I decided to experiment with the wrap-up presentation and use juniors and seniors to speak to the freshmen about where the freshmen would draw the line between their Judaism and secular culture. After planning the wrap-up session with a fellow teacher, I prepped a group of juniors and seniors, mostly students from RealSchool's Religious Identity team, and then sent my religious SWAT agents to do their work. They were fantastic. 

The juniors and seniors, about ten of them, took groups of about 13 freshmen each. Each freshman received a flashcard on which he/she wrote five things he/she considered inviolable about Judaism, five things the freshmen felt truly and profoundly defined them as Jews. They were then asked to imagine a scenario in which those five or at least one might be threatened. Lively discussions ensued.

A group of freshmen and the senior moderating their session
write their five inviolables of Judaism on a flashcard
Students discuss what's essential to their Judaism
As my colleague and I had hoped, the freshmen felt much more comfortable talking about their religious conflicts and plans for spiritual growth with their peers as opposed to with their teachers. The session left me convinced that using upperclassmen to "teach" the underclassmen was a good idea, and when I asked the juniors and seniors what they thought, they said they loved the opportunity to speak with the freshmen and find ways to challenge them to grow as Jews. I think the exercise also forced the upperclassmen to think more deeply about their own Judaism, though the group was one that was already inclined to do so. 

The wrap-up went so well that I not only would ask the upperclassmen to be part of future religious discussions, but I also want them involved in presenting sessions in secular subjects during Frisch's integrated days of learning. I love the idea of peer teaching and think it will become an important part of my student-centered initiatives.  

Notes for the Wrap-Up Session

If you want more detailed information about the wrap-up session, here is the email I sent the juniors and seniors in order to prepare them for the discussion. They told me they did use the information:


Thanks for moderating the Greek Week wrap up tomorrow. 

Here is the outline of the session. 

I'll introduce and reiterate the need to draw lines in our lives, to let in from secular culture what is aligned with Torah values and to reject what is not. 

We'll then divide the kids into ten groups. Once in the group, hand out the flashcards and tell the kids to write down 5 things they consider inviolable in their practice of Judaism. In other words, what means the most to them about their Judaism; what acts or values do they consider indispensable to their practice as Jews? Ask them also to consider a scenario where that practice or value might come under attack. Example: their friends are texting on Shabbat about where to meet up, so the only way to know where everyone is hanging out is to text friends. (You can think of other examples as well.)

When everyone is done writing and brainstorming, first get myriad examples of acts and values that are the inviolables for each person. Then have kids share examples of what might threaten the inviolables.

If your group isn't forthcoming and the discussion seems to be lagging, use the Rambam about the obligation to die "al kiddush Hashem" rather than violate the "big three," the "yehareg v'al ya'avor": murder, illicit relations and idolatry. Here is a summary from the Chabad of Oxford (yes, as in the University) about the Igeret Hashmad, the Letter of Apostasy in which Rambam defends Spanish Jewry for not converting to Islam:

Two central dilemmas Igeret HaShmad addresses are as follows: should one give up ones life when faced with forced conversion to Islam? The question has immense implications. By sacrificing their life, they allow their children to become orphans who will almost definitely be abandoned to Islam. Conversely, by submitting to Islam in public, the Jewish identity of the children can be retained  for generations to come.

Another question is whether a person can be considered a hypocrite in Judaism.  If the person converts to Islam but continues to observe some commandments and pray the Hebrew liturgy of the Siddur, is this hypocrisy?

Maimonides, as in the Mishne Torah[5], explains the Jewish law related to abandonment of Jewish practise under duress[6]:

A person who is forced to commit one of the three cardinal sins - idolatry, adultery, and murder - in any circumstances should rather die than capitulate. This applies whether the threat was to transgress in private or in public, during a time of oppression or freedom, and whether the threat is for personal motive or in spite of Jewish belief.

If the sin, however, is other than the three mentioned above, there is a difference as to whether the oppressor is out for personal benefit, or acting out of spite towards Judaism. This is one of the reasons why Esther was permitted under duress to marry the Persian king, Achashverosh[7], against Jewish law, since the motive of the king was for personal benefit, rather than out of spite[8].

If the oppressor has religious motives, there is a difference whether it is a time of persecution or peace. If the circumstances took place during a period of peace for the Jews, one is only permitted to transgress if it is done in private.

In addition to the laws of keeping the Jewish faith when threatened by death in certain circumstances, Maimonides discusses the need for a Jewish person to live to a high moral standard. A person who behaves in an anti - social manner causes a desecration of G-d’s name. If a person is held in high esteem, they are expected to live up to an even higher moral standard[9]. It is more problematic when someone abandons Judaism when not under duress, but for reasons of indulgence.

On the other hand when a person behaves in a manner that is of a high moral standard, this sanctifies G-d’s name: A person who is genuine, altruistic, commands respect, has a good reputation and is disciplined, sanctifies G-d’s name. These qualities, according to Maimonides, sanctify
G-d’s name more than religious practice.

When a Jew is indeed killed for being unwavering to the Jewish faith, it is the highest virtue in Judaism, as was merited by Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, who were killed by the Romans[10]. Even  one who is not actually killed but was prepared to die and was miraculously saved, is also called a Martyr. The four Jewish advisors to Nebuchadnezzar, Chananya, Mishael, Azarya and Daniel experienced this. They were thrown in the lion’s den for not prostrating themselves before Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, and miraculously survived[11].

Similarly, the seven sons of Hannah refused to prostrate before the Greek ruler, Antiochus, and as a result were all put to death in front of their mother[12].

Maimonides writes, even one who is not observant but was killed for maintaining faith in Judaism merits a portion in the World to Come. This is illustrated in the story related in the Talmud, when the entireJewish population of the city of Lod was accused of killing the daughter of a Roman king; all its inhabitants were threatened with annihilation. Two brothers, Papus and Lulinus, came forward and falsely confessed to the killing in order to spare the lives of thousands of Jews. The Talmud says that this was an act of martyrdom and the brothers ascended to the loftiest level in Gan Eden where ordinary people cannot enter[13].

Returning to the subject of Spanish Jewry, Maimonides maintains that it is not incumbent upon a Jewish person to sacrifice their life not to convert to Islam. This is because conversion to Islam is purely a verbal declaration. One who does give up life, however, receives great reward and is indeed considered a martyr.

Conversely, Maimonides concludes, even one who is obligated  to sacrifice life not to convert to Islam, but does not rise to the challenge of martyrdom, and abandons Judaism under duress, is not considered an apostate and does not deserve any degradation or punishment. This is similar to a woman who is bethrothed to a man and is raped by another. The woman is not held accountable although she could have given her life and been spared the act of adultery[14].

This is very different to the Talmudic discussion concerning idolaters who abandon the Jewish faith willingly. The Jews of Spain are all in the category of forced converts and are not considered responsible for their actions. They are permitted to testify in a Jewish court of law and may be a witness in a marriage or on a bill of divorce.

Maimonides proceeds to enter into a diatribe towards the rabbi. He writes that the rabbi is sinful by expressing his opinion that Jews in Spain should die for their faith. This is compounded by the irony that this rabbi is expressing this view when he himself is living a life of religious freedom and comfort.

With regard to keeping Judaism under such difficult circumstances, Maimonides says, there is no reason for concerns of hypocrisy. If when under duress, certain Jewish practises are abandoned and others retained, it should not be said that the transgression overwhelms the observance. This rule only applies in a civil court of law; however, G-d rewards a person for each individual action notwithstanding other conduct. Therefore, a person should endeavour to keep theMitzvot as much as circumstances permit and will be rewarded for what is kept. Furthermore, a person should realise that a Mitzvah is of great value when done under difficult and life threatening conditions

. Although Maimonides defends Spanish Jewry for converting to Islam under duress, he nevertheless considers Jews who remain in Spain under such circumstances to be bordering on negligent abandonment of the Jewish faith.  If Jews feel they must remain in Spain, they should live covertly and stay as much as possible indoors, to avoid total assimilation.  He concludes by strongly advising that Jews should flee countries that prohibit Jewish beliefs and escape, even under dangerous travel conditions, to a country where to be conspicuously Jewish is permitted. He adds that they should not be distressed for leaving behind beloved family members, nor should they feel concerned that they are forfeiting their possessions by fleeing the country, as these matters are insignificant when considering the importance of retaining ones Jewish belief. 

Here is a link to the website: 

In addition, in Perek 5 of Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah, Rambam writes that in a time of "tekufat ha-shmad," religious persecution, the injunction to die rather than violate the "big three" is suspended. I've attached an interesting shiur on Kiddush Hashem by Rav Lichtenstein. (It's always good to go into something like this with MORE info rather than just enough, y'know?)

Wrap up your part of the session with the quotation from The Catcher in the Rye, said by Mr. Antolini to Holden:

"The mark of an immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one." 

It's easy to make the grand gesture and say "I'll be a martyr for God" (OK, maybe it's not that easy, but it's easy to talk that talk.) It's much harder to do what Judaism asks us to do, which is to live humbly day to day, doing the small but necessary things that Judaism is comprised of. 

Then get the kids back to me in the front of the auditorium, and I'll end by saying that living at the line is hard, we have to feel the tension because that means we care, we should even enjoy the tension, and we should realize we have to own our Judaism because if we compromise and keep giving parts of it away, we'll be left with nothing. Therefore, as you forge your identities, you have to make sure you really own your Judaism and own your own religious growth in the same way you own your academic and extra-curricular life.

Happy Chanukah!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Frisch Africa Encounter Update: Presentation on Ethiopian Jewry

Sophomores learned about Ethiopian Jewry this week
during The Frisch Africa Encounter

Jewish Heart for Africa is now Innovation: Africa

Preparations for The Frisch Africa Encounter are well underway, with students taking over my office to plan their Green-a-thon fundraiser and the activities for the night of December 18. The students have decided to sell coffee in eco-friendly cups in order to raise money for Innovation: Africa (formerly known as Jewish Heart for Africa), an organization that uses sustainable Israeli technologies to improve life in Africa.

As we're running our interdisciplinary project on Africa, Innovation: Africa was busy at the UN. Founder of the organization Sivan Ya'ari spoke at the UN on December 5:

Innovation: Africa at the UN on December 5

Integration of Ethiopian Jewry into Israeli Society

Sophomores this past week learned a song in Hebrew class about Ethiopian Jews and their quest to come to Israel. That lesson was to prepare students for a presentation from my sister Smadar Goldstein, an online education provider who runs her company JETS from Israel. She was visiting New Jersey this past week and was able to give her presentation about Ethiopian Jewry in person (last year, she presented the information via a webinar). 

Students learned that Ethiopian Jews had been exiled with the Kingdom of Israel and hadn't known about events in Jewish history such as the destruction of the First Temple, Purim, Chanukah and the creation of the Talmud. When the Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel, many wept when they discovered the temple had been destroyed! Students also heard from an appealing and endearing couple, Asher and Esther Fredman, and the challenges they faced as an interracial couple. The presentation discussed many of the challenges Ethiopian Jews have faced in Israel as well as the successes they have enjoyed. For example, everyone in Israel now celebrates SIGD Day, an Ethiopian holiday. 

Here are a few pictures from the Ethiopian presentation:

When students return to Hebrew class this week, they'll discuss the issue of Sudanese refugees in Israel. The sophomores will see the complexity of this very contemporary problem: on the one hand, we want to help the refugees from Sudan because we've been persecuted and driven out of so many lands ourselves and so can identify with their plight. On the other hand, we want to make sure Israel is the haven for Jews it needs to be, since Jews all over the world are safer because Israel exists. In this part of The Frisch Africa Encounter, sophomores will hopefully learn about some of the thorny problems confronting Israel today.