A beautiful day in the neighborhood
As an example of exceptionally poor timing and lousy geographical planning, we chose to take a walk through the neighborhoods of Jerusalem today, right along President Obama’s motorcade route. Amongst the barricades and detours, we saw dozens – probably hundreds by the end of our four-hour walking tour – of police and soldiers lining the street, not counting the rooftop snipers or the ones in suits with what seemed to be collapsible assault rifles, checking every garbage can along the way. Sadly, this is probably similar to what he would see from the inside of his armored limo (if the glass wasn’t tinted and if the driver slowed down a bit) for rides through most of his host countries’ streets. But it occurred to me that there were some sights that were clearly unique to this city and this country, and that seeing even some of them could give the President a glimpse of what it means to be a Jew and an Israeli.
If the limousine slowed – or better yet, if he stepped out and really walked through the neighborhood – he might see street signs that bear the names of Jewish royalty from antiquity (King Hezekiah, from the eighth century before the common era), physician/philosophers from the thirteenth century (Nachmanides) or Zionist thinkers (Achad Ha-am) and poets (Yehudah Amichai) from modernity. He would see a street memorializing the Palmach, the pre-48 “strike force” that, along with the Haganah, transformed itself into the IDF; he’d see thousands of years of Jewish history on street signs and in neighborhood names – history that did not begin in the twentieth century and certainly not with the Jews’ national tragedy of seventy years ago.
If he truly walked the streets of Jerusalem, he’d run into these absurdly small parks (parkettes?) every six or seven blocks – parks that would pale in size compared to many American parks, with a handful of “equipment” that wouldn’t pass government regulations on the other side of the water – but that serve as neighborhood meeting grounds on Shabbat for “mixed” crowds of religious and secular, old and young. He might look closer at the soldiers and police ensuring his safety; he’d see former Russians and former Ethiopians and former Americans, men and women, some with kipot, some not. If he listened, he’d hear them speak with dozens of accents in one language – a language most had considered dead not too long ago. If he listened and if he had taken a crash course in that now very-alive language, he might pick up a few comments about the recent election here – and he’d have to marvel at what an enormous range of parties and philosophies and positions is held in one tiny country.
On his way back to the King David, he’d of course see dozens of b’tai Knesset – synagogues – along with internet cafes, high-end restaurants and unbelievably fantastic falafel stands. He’d also bump into Jews from pretty much every corner of the globe who felt an inexplicable kinship with a land and a people thousands of miles from their own home and country.
He’s a discerning, thinking man. He’d recognize issues and challenges and obstacles – some self-inflicted and so many others emanating from the outside. But there’s so much more to see.
Debbie and I wish all of you and your families a wonderful spring break and a meaningful, joyful Passover.
Chag kasher v’sameach (from Jerusalem),
It’s tough writing a piece that refers to someone else’s writing; reference (or directly quote) too much and you might as well tell people to just go ahead and read the original. Don’t refer to the source but borrow too much of the words and phrases and ideas that resonated with you, and your integrity-meter starts going off (and not in a good way). The problem is exacerbated of course when you happen to agree with the other writer.
So I confess: David Brooks’ New York Times piece, “What Data Can’t Do,” made so much sense to me that it feels like cheating to offer too much of his language here (the last time I looked, The Times hasn’t called his column Shabbat Shalom). But I’ll live with it, because the central truths he offers from a business context so easily relate to the educational world.
Brooks begins with an anecdote about a CEO’s decision not to pull his bank out of Italy, in spite of its current weak economy and other negative calculations. He decided to remain in Italy, notwithstanding the short-term costs, partially basing his decision on a decades-long relationship. “He wasn’t oblivious to data in making this decision, but ultimately, he was guided by a different way of thinking.” Brooks applauds the decision, arguing that, “Commerce depends on trust,” and that “Trust is reciprocity coated by emotion.”
He tells his readers that the story provides a look at the strengths and limitations of data analysis – that data can certainly be used to make sense of terribly complex situations, that they can help “compensate our overconfidence in our own intuitions.” But at the same time, there are many things big data does poorly. (The italics are mine - because I really like that line.)
In quick succession, he notes the following:
- data struggles with the social;
- it struggles with context (“Human decisions are not discrete events. They are embedded in sequences and contexts.”);
- Big Data has trouble with big problems; and
- data obscures values.
Talk about out of the mouths of award-winning columnists . . .
Schools, like any other institution, should take its Big Data seriously. We should identify which data are important and which are not; we need to determine the best means for collection and analysis and application; and we ought to remember that the plural of anecdote is not data. As Brooks reminds us though, a key bulletpoint on the list is to know not only the strengths but the limitations of data analysis.
No one and no school should ever suggest that standardized tests and assessments and GPAs are not significant indicators of academic progress or even of learning itself. At Agnon we certainly pride ourselves at maintaining a healthy skepticism of the power of such “objective” evaluations; but we’d be foolish to say that there’s no place for them in the educators’ toolbox. But to hang one’s kippah solely on the hook of spread sheets and comparative rankings is practically begging to miss the forest for the trees (Brooks: “Computer-driven analysis… excels at measuring the quantity of social interactions but not the quality. Network scientists can map your interactions with the six co-workers you see during 76 percent of your days, but they can’t capture your devotion to the childhood friends you see twice a year . . .”)
Take a look at our alumni, past high school and college and into young adulthood. Their successes will be viewed through a fantastically complicated mix of lenses, only some of which are easily quantifiable. Spiritual satisfaction; a sense of connectedness to their community and their history; a belief in their responsibility to their neighbor and their country and planet; an anchoring in faith. Try putting some of those on an excel sheet.
So let’s absolutely look at and learn from Big Data. And then let’s look beyond it.
Jerry D. Isaak-Shapiro
Head of School
(Thank you, Mr. Brooks)
The Legacy of a Giant
Jewish pluralism is so often misunderstood that many have shied away from even using the term; I’m either idealistic (or stubborn) enough not to have fallen prey to such forces, but I admit to feeling frustrated at the apparent confusion too many have at defining — much less embracing — the concept.
Pluralism - isn’t that shorthand for anything goes? Tied with that personal least favorite is another annoying sound bite: that pluralism is a euphemism for the least common denominator— a diluting-until-nothing-is-left process that’s promulgated by a lack of core values.
It is decidedly not “anything goes” — nor is it the “least common” anything; and it is not a synonym for “diversity” — which is more the tactic that serves the strategy of pluralism. Written more elegantly, Diana Eck, in her introduction for the Pluralism Project at Harvard, suggested that pluralism “is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity. . .” It’s not merely about a diverse population, a one-each-from-column-A-B-C quota system; rather, it’s about interconnectivity.
One other misperception of pluralism, which, for the they-should-know-better crowd, gets awfully close to an outright canard, is that it’s a concept exclusively born on the left-liberal-progressive side of Jewish life — that it’s not supported by nor does it benefit individuals or institutions or philosophies associated with a greater degree of observance. Rabbi Professor David Hartman would vehemently disagree.
Rabbi Hartman, truly one of the great Jewish philosophers of his generation, died on February 10. In tribute and eulogy he’s attributed with leadership of “liberal Orthodoxy” and with establishing in the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem a center for genuine pluralistic study and engagement. Elisheva Goldberg in The Daily Beast wrote that his was “an Orthodox voice that attempted to articulate a Jewish theology that squared a religious particularlism to the circle of moral universalism.” To her and to so many others, he succeed brilliantly.
Rabbi Hartman had what we would call today an “untra-Orthodox” childhood; he would continue to embrace a life of consistent religious observance, while he enthusiastically learned and borrowed from Judaism’s other movements to engage learners and teachers from nearly the entire spectrum of Jewish thought and practice. Goldberg in The Beast observed that he found a community in Southern Jerusalem that listened to this new amalgam of Jewish philosophy, and that he helped to transform it into a thriving hub of Jewish pluralist thought.
I had the pleasure of hearing him teach, but not the honor of truly being able to call him my teacher. But I can deduce, from those few beautiful moments and from others who had a much deeper association with him, the strength of his convictions and the power of his ideas. Pluralism was never – could never be – merely a stand-in for internal Jewish affirmative action; and it was not and is not demographic parallel play, in which differently affiliated Jews sit side by side, not so much engaging as tolerating each other. That, I’m sure Rabbi Hartman would say, is at best pediatric pluralism. What’s needed of course is mature and adult engagement, which at times might even lead to disagreement – but disagreement within the context of genuine mutual respect.
The Hartman Institute may be an oasis of such thought and practice, but it’s hardly alone. Every time a program or convention or simple meeting provides opportunities for real dialogue between and amongst participants from varied perspectives and histories — we’re a step closer to celebrating our commonalities rather than hyper inflating our differences. Rabbi Hartman would be proud.
Jerry D. Isaak-Shapiro
Head of School