Author Archives: Lindsey Bridwell

081514_reverse-birthright-sm

Reverse Birthright

Students of the University of Haifa's Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies participate in a 10-day U.S. trip.

Students of the University of Haifa’s Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies participate in a 10-day U.S. trip.

Gur Alroey, chair of the School of History at the University of Haifa and director of the Israeli school’s pioneering Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies, has likened a 10-day United States trip for the program’s students to “Reverse Taglit,” referring to the free Taglit-Birthright trips of the same length that bring diaspora Jews to Israel.

Last month, the Ruderman Program’s inaugural class of 21 graduate students took part in that immersive U.S. journey, attending lectures, meeting community leaders and touring historical and religious sites that reflect the American Jewish experience.

“The focus is American Jewry, to examine this community as a group that stands in its own right, independent of Israel,” Alroey said.

In August 2013, JNS.org was the first outlet to report the formation of the American Jewish Studies program, which launched with a $2 million combined investment from the University of Haifa and the Ruderman Family Foundation. The foundation, headquartered in Israel and Boston (Haifa’s sister city), prioritizes the issue of Israel-diaspora relations.

The master’s degree program’s curriculum surveys American Jewish immigration history, modern foreign policy and governmental structures, gender issues and the religious makeup of American Jewish communities. But the highlight, according to some participants, is the 10-day U.S. trip.

The Israeli students who arrived in America on June 22 were eager to embrace American culture. Two students in the group, Ayala Shanee and Hila Madar, had never visited the U.S., and their excitement was palpable. “[New York City] is big, it’s overwhelming, so diverse and so human,” Shanee said. Madar described her first experience at an American salsa nightclub, saying, “I was impressed by the way people interacted and the diversity of the people on the dance floor. It gave me confidence.”

Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University (NYU) and the Ruderman Program’s primary contact in New York City, said U.S. Jewry “would be what it is even if there were no Israel.”

“Obviously, Israel has had an impact, but the basic foundations of Jewish American life were formed in an American context,” she said.

Against the backdrop of that historical context, discovering the true nature of the unique American Jewish population is the challenge faced by the Ruderman Program’s students and professors alike.

“The group [of students] has a strong Israeli mindset,” Alroey said. “They are a product of the Israeli education system, the exams, etc. It’s very difficult for some of the students to accept that there is a Jewish existence outside of Israel.”

The group toured Ellis Island and the Tenement Museum in New York as well as the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. The students also gathered for a morning lecture at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan by Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, director of the JCC’s Center for Jewish Living.

“We provide people with links, connections and ways of exploring Jewish identity,” Cohen said of the JCC. Asked whether there is an equivalent resource in Israel or if the JCC is something unique to Jewish life in America, Cohen’s answer was multifaceted.

“There is a distinction in the lifestyle and practices, but also many similarities,” she said. “People don’t want their Jewish identity defined for them in either country, yet they are looking for more meaningful ways to connect.”

Describing her impressions of the differences between Israeli and American culture, Madar said, “Here you can’t push in line. In Israel, you push. In some ways, I want this structure for Israel.” Her observations demonstrate the mentality of the graduate program’s students as they embarked on their American adventure. Many of the students are seeking outside perspectives as a way to reflect on their experience growing up and living in Israel. Sometimes, their findings can be surprising.

“[On one day of the trip] we met with a number of rabbis representing different denominations,” Diner said. “One student asked, ‘If you’re an Orthodox Jew, why don’t you live in Israel?’”

Commenting on the meeting with the rabbis in a different context, Madar reveals that her deep-rooted connection to Israel is based in Judaism.

“In Israel our perspective is intertwined with Jewish life,” she said. “We see a tree and we know that Elijah sat under that tree. We have a strong connection to the land.”

Almost a year after its formation, founders of the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies say it has made significant strides — bolstering dialogue between allied nations and Jewish populations, while providing a mechanism for Israelis to reflect on their homeland. Program funding is secure through next year, and Alroey is astonished by the interest he has received.

“The demand is unbelievable. Without any advertising, we already have 25 students for next year, and applications pour in,” he said.

“The United States of America is Israel’s greatest and most important ally,” Ruderman said. “Yet, Israeli leaders have very little knowledge about their American Jewish cousins. They simply don’t understand the nature and challenges facing the American Jewish community. I believe that the Ruderman Program in American Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa, the only academic program focusing on the American Jewish community at any Israeli university, will play a large role in educating Israel’s leaders of tomorrow on this most vital community for Israel’s future.”

081514_poll_sm

Is the GOP the pro-Israel party?

RNC’s Matt Brooks sees a  shift in Democratic support  away from Israel.

RNC’s Matt Brooks sees a
shift in Democratic support
away from Israel.

A new Pew Research Center poll showing Republicans more sympathetic than Democrats to Israel has Republican Jewish activists crowing and their Democratic counterparts questioning whether the poll gives an accurate picture of support for Israel.

“For years, public opinion polls have documented the large gap in support for Israel between Republicans and Democrats, with Republicans being far more supportive of Israel,” Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Committee, said in a news release. “This poll shows a gap of 27 points.”

Conducted from July 8 to July 14, the week Israel began its air operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip but before its ground invasion, the poll asked, “In the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, which side do you sympathize with more — Israel or the Palestinians?” Possible answers were: Israel, Palestinians, both, neither, don’t know or refused to answer.

The survey of 1,805 respondents showed that 73 percent of Republicans sympathize with Israel in the conflict compared with 44 percent of Democrats.

The results mark a change from the same question asked in a poll in April, when 68 percent of Republicans sympathized with Israel and 46 percent of Democrats did.

A closer look reveals further divides. Respondents who consider themselves conservative Republicans support Israel by 77 percent, compared with 68 percent of moderate Republicans. Among Democrats, 48 percent of moderate Democrats support Israel, compared with 39 percent of liberal Democrats.

Brooks, in the news release, issued July 15, called the poll results during a time of war “a sad and sobering confirmation of the Democrat party’s shift over time away from support of Israel, especially at its grassroots. If support for Israel ceases to be bipartisan, the U.S.-Israel relationship — which is of so much benefit to both countries — will suffer.”

But Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that while Middle East hostilities continue, it’s more important to highlight the unity of the Jewish community than discord. “I think that talking about polls and policies now, in the midst of a crisis, is a misdirection of energy.”

Moline said that he recently spoke with Brooks, his RJC counterpart, and that they both agreed that Jewish unity should trump political brinksmanship at the moment.

Still, he said, “it doesn’t surprise me that, having found a single piece of news that fits their agenda, the Republican Jewish Coalition put out a news release. It doesn’t surprise me at all. But I don’t think this is the time for us to start debating how you get a poll to shift one way or another.”

Other Democratic supporters of Israel suggest that the poll’s wording distorted the results. U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who is Jewish and one of the strongest pro-Israel voices in the House, questioned the use of the word “sympathize.”

“The word sympathy tends to ask: ‘Who do you think is downtrodden and having a difficult life?’” said Sherman. “Look, the average Israeli lives a pretty good life [compared to] our image of the average Palestinian.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) agreed that some Democrats are siding against Israel for well-meaning, but ill-informed, reasons.
“I think people on the left side of the political spectrum are moved by the sight of innocent civilians getting killed and injured,” said Waxman. “More of that has happened on the Palestinian side and [voters are] seeing people that were not combatants” being injured or killed.

“They may not have the perspective that Israel cannot tolerate a constant bombardment that is coming in from Gaza and [the Israelis] have no other choice than to hit back,” Waxman said.

He added that the opinions reflected in the poll numbers are not shared by his House colleagues on both sides of the aisle, who consistently and, usually unanimously, pass bills and resolutions in support of Israel.

Sherman said, contrary to the poll results, threats to support for Israel come from both right and left.

“You have on the Republican side the Rand Paul isolationists, who are probably the greatest threat as a practical matter to U.S. support for Israel. And you have on the left, and have always had on the left, people who are misguided because they want to support the underdog and they think that because the average Israeli is richer than the average Palestinian, and because Israel is the most powerful military west of the Jordan,” they need to sympathize with the Palestinians.

Another problem, according to Sherman, is what he calls the “Kent State Rorschach test.” The shooting of students at Ohio’s Kent State University who were protesting U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War by the Ohio National Guard was a defining moment for many liberals, he said.

“There are some liberals who don’t bother to figure out who’s right or wrong in any conflict. They just root for the scruffy-looking students and root against the uniformed military. Because they see everything as a Rorschach test reminding them of Kent State,” said Sherman.

According to Sherman, voters lacking information could easily jump to conclusions based on their bias.

“When I see a bar fight, I don’t bother to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong,” joked Sherman, who is bald. “I just root for the bald guy.”

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com
JNS.org contributed to this story.

081514_flashback

Flashback: Sara Love Hoffman

081514_flashback_nowSara Love Hoffman, 39, realizes that living in Baltimore since she was 11 still makes her a newcomer by Baltimore standards. Still, she did get here in time to attend Franklin Middle School and Franklin High. After she headed to college in Florida, Love Hoffman didn’t expect to find herself back in town. Yet, Baltimore’s unique Jewish community lured her back. A special educator who owns her own home-based tutoring company, Love Hoffman is married to Geoffrey Hoffman, also a special educator, and the couple has two children, Hayden Skye, 8 and Maya Raine, 5. They live in Reisterstown.

iNSIDER:Your family moved to Baltimore from York, Pa., in 1986. What was the reason for the move?
Love Hoffman:
We moved here because there were almost no Jews in York and my parents wanted me to grow up with a Jewish community. After joining Chizuk Amuno Congregation, where we still go, the first place I went was to the JCC.

What was it like for you to be suddenly in a Jewish community?
It was great. I got really involved. My parents have always showed us the importance of being involved in the community. My mother is very active in the synagogue and Hadassah. On my 18th birthday, I became a life member of Hadassah. I also went to Camp Louise from the time I was 8.

Has being involved in the community affected the way you are raising your children?
Yes. Both of my kids are graduates of the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC Early Childhood Center. Now my son goes to religious school at Chizuk Amuno and he really enjoys it. We do Shabbat. It’s very important to us that they grow up like I did. They look forward to celebrating holidays and they know that’s when family comes. This week my son went to Camp Airy with his father for the first time. He’ll get a different sense of Jewish culture there. He’s supposed to come home on Sunday, but I don’t know if he will. He seems to be having the time of his life!

081514_flashback_pastWhat might surprise your high school friends?
Well, I don’t know if they would be too surprised. I’ve always been involved in every extracurricular possible. I volunteer with my kid’s schools and I just completed The Associated’s D’or Tikvah program.

What was your favorite part of D’or Tikvah?
It was really interesting to get behind the scenes of the agencies. I knew CHANA and I knew CHAI, but I didn’t know how they worked. They showed us how the agencies run, where the money goes, how The Associated makes decisions on how to allocate it. Then I get the opportunity to use that knowledge to pick anywhere in the system where I can use it. I will be serving on the Center for Jewish Camping committee. I heard about that and thought it would be interesting.

081514_math_sm

Adding It Up

081514_mathWith the advancement of Common Core and the debate over education reform heating up, math disabilities are getting more attention at some local schools than ever before.

“We started with a traditional [math education] program, and we scrapped it within three months,” says Jamie Caplan, founder of the Legacy School, a Sykesville-based school focused on helping children with dyslexia. The school focuses on small classrooms and learning at an independent pace.

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, dyscalculia, or math learning disability, affect between 5 and 9 percent of children. While many children with dyscalculia are also affected by other kinds of learning disabilities, it is not uncommon for dyscalculia to appear alone. The disability often appears in the form of difficulties remembering number facts, relating quantities to the numbers themselves and recognizing patterns, says the NCLD website.

For parents who suspect their child may have dyscalculia, Caplan says one telltale sign is a discrepancy between what that child understands and what he or she is able to produce.

At The Legacy School, Caplan says teachers focus on cementing the basic building blocks, like subtraction and addition, before moving on to more complicated material. For some students, the addition and subtraction unit can last just a couple of weeks, but for others, it may take months. Caplan says her teachers are instructed to take as long as the children need to be completely confident in each lesson before moving on.

“In math you need that strong foundation,” says Caplan.

Fran Bowman, a former teacher and current educational specialist, agrees.

“Think of it like climbing a ladder,” says Bowman. “You can’t climb the eighteenth rung if you’re missing rungs 15, 16 and 17.”

Bowman has seen a lot of changes in education over her more than four decades of working in the field of education. In the past, she says, some educators have approached learning disabilities by taking the same lessons and strategies they use for other children but moving slower. While this may have seemed like a reasonable tactic, she says, it didn’t address the heart of the problem: that each student learns differently. Strategies that work for one student may not resonate with the student in the neighboring desk.

At the Jemicy School in Owings Mills, Beth Franks, head of math at the lower school, says the school deals with math disabilities by placing students in classrooms organized not by level, but by learner-type. For example, she has some second- graders who sit in math class with third- or fourth-graders. It works, she says, because the classrooms are small, allowing a lot of one-to-one time, and because the students are all being taught in a way that makes sense to them.

Another essential ingredient to teaching students with math disabilities is allowing the children to do the math physically.

“You have to get creative and you have to stick with what works,” says Franks.

Each math classroom at Jemicy has manipulatives for students to use. When they’re learning about geometry, they use Popsicle sticks to create the shapes being discussed. When they’re adding, multiplying, diving or subtracting, the children have access to wooden blocks to place in groups and move around.

Franks says the school often uses the following metaphor, discovered by a fellow Jemicy staff member and originating from the teachings of spiritual leader Paul Solomon, to explain the learning process: “People can describe a strawberry to you, what it looks like, what it feels like, its color and shape, but until you have tasted the strawberry you can’t really know what the strawberry tastes like.”

In other words: Each student has to experience what the equations they are solving mean. Instructors at Jemicy start with the concrete and connect it to the abstract ideas math is centered on.

In the end, says Frank, the biggest difference of all comes when a student realizes he or she has the ability to understand subjects like math or reading and excel.

“Many kids come in and really, really lack confidence,” she says. “When they learn to read, it’s almost like, ‘Hey, I am smart,’ and it sort of transfers over.”

hnorris@jewishtimes.com