What if there were no public schools?

Crossposted from Democratic Convention Watch, because as Jews, we value education, and should be up in arms about this situation. 

Last week, we informed you about a Pennsylvania school district where the teachers and support staff were working for no pay, as the Corbett administration had cut their funds, and was refusing to release funding available to the district in June.

While school legislation varies by state, since 1918 ALL US states have had compulsory education requirements. That means the state, normally through local school boards but with a mix of Federal, state and local funding, provides education and that it is mandatory for children to attend from age 5-7 (depending on the state) through age 16-18 (again, depending on the state.) Yes, there are certain exemptions, but the bottom line is that people pay taxes which go to support the school district, and education is provided. 

Why?

Modern compulsory attendance laws were first enacted in Massachusetts in 1853 followed by New York in 1854. By 1918, all states had compulsory attendance laws. One reason for the acceptance by the states of these laws was the belief that the public school was the best means to improve the literacy rate of the poor and to help assimilate an immigrant population that grew at a high rate between the mid nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Another explanation is that as children were required to attend school for a number of years, factory owners found it more difficult to exploit the cheap and plentiful child labor. (Emphasis mine)

So what does it say about our values when a school district is allowed to implode? I cannot understand how this story is not getting huge national play…

More after the jump.

There is a lawsuit:

The school board and some parents in Delaware County's Chester Upland School District filed suit in federal court today against the state, the education department and legislative leaders, asking that the district be adequately funded through the end of the school year, at a cost of about $20.7 million.

The money should come from state allocations normally due the district which are now being diverted to pay charter schools, the lawsuit said, and from state education department reserve funds.

State officials have repeatedly said they will not send money to the district.

There was a brief vigil last night, but nothing really came of it, except plans for another meeting. The underlying debt problem here is that the state had control of the school district for a number of years, mismanaged everything, causing debt to run up and many children to flee to charter schools. Corbett is now saying that maybe the state will take over again (like that worked so well the last time, she said with dripping sarcasm), and that he is legally obligated to fund the charters prior to funding the public schools. That last point is one of the bones of contention in the current suit. Additionally:

The lawsuit also said that because payments to charter schools are based on Chester Upland's 2010-11 budget, which was $17 million more than this year, payments based on the 2010-2011 spending levels should be halted unless Chester Upland's state funding is restored to that year's levels.

That increased budget was due to the stimulus funding.  Remember that when it comes time to argue about the role of government.

Chester-Upland is nowhere near the only school district with money problems. More of these situations will keep happening. I keep thinking about the phrase I emphasized in the first quote: is it possible that reactionary state governments, in addition to endeavoring to deny suffrage, are also using school funding as a weapon against the poor and immigrants? Think about it: without basic literacy, what job can one get? You can't even navigate a car if you cannot make sense of the street signs. If you're rich, schooling is never an issue, there are always private schools available. But basic education is not just a right in this country, it's a legislated entitlement, even if you're too poor to afford private education. 

This election year is all about which is worse: big government or big business. That's the frame. Education is something that government is supposed to do. Worldwide:

Children are entitled to a free, quality basic education. Recognizing this entitlement, world leaders made the achievement of universal primary education by the year 2015 one of the Millennium Development Goals.

Think about the countries that don't provide education. Here are a few: Nepal, Chad, Sudan, Chad and the Congo. Plus lots more in sub-Sahara Africa and Southeast Asia. Do we really want to end up on that list?

Teachers to work with no pay

Crossposted from Democratic Convention Watch

Here in Pennsylvania, we have a governor who believes education is not a necessity for poor kids, especially black ones. I have a huge spreadsheet from last year when Corbett announced the education cuts. It's too big to post, but if you want a copy, email me and I'll send one over. The faulty logic employed in Corbett's calculations was to pretend that 2009 stimulus money was still coming. It was a specious oversight, done on purpose.

So here are some numbers (from the spreadsheet released by Corbett's office) related to Chester-Upland, a poor district. 43% of the 3,600 children comprising the student body live in poverty. Total funding for the 2010-2011 school year – $43 million. Total cuts (Basic Ed, PA Accountability Grant, Charter School Reimbursement, Educational Assistance Program) – $18 million, or about 32%, totaling $2,542/student.

And here is the news from the acting superintendent:

We now face a very challenging financial crisis. We are currently unable to fund the district’s payroll expenses after January 4, 2012.

That's right, as of yesterday, there is no money to pay the employees.

There is a chunk of money (about $18 million) that Corbett could release now, prior to the planned disbursement in June. But no word from Tom's office. The teachers and support workers, however, have a different message: they will work as long as they can, even with no pay. To the students, (yesterday) from Gloria Zoranski, president of the Chester Upland School District’s employee associations:

We also have a message for the students of the district – we will be at work tomorrow, so come to school prepared to learn.

That's right – to all those who think teachers are money-grubbing, union-first-kids-last types – they'll work without pay to teach. And janitors? They don't need Newt's kid-janitor program: they'll be on the job, too. 

This is what the 2012 elections will be ALL about: do we educate kids or do we allow the teabaggers to continue on their destructive path? And as an aside, this is why it's such a big deal that Mitt “Mittens” Romney won't release his tax return: with the money he's got in the Caymans, avoiding American taxes, and the 15% rate he pays on the money Bain is still paying him, well, let's just say that the money he didn't pay would easily have kept Chester-Upland going another few months….fewer dollars for his undocumented gardeners, but more to teach Johnny to read.

New Ideas for the New Year at KI


Kenneseth Israel Launches E-Learning Hebrew Program for Elementary School Students.

BLUE BELL — Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel (KI) Blue Bell is marking both the Jewish New Year and the new start of the school year by introducing an initiative that will take learning to the next level. KI’s e-Learning Hebrew program is one of the area’s first online programs for elementary age religious school students.  Combining both in-class and online instruction, students will acquire a broader understanding and appreciation of Hebrew and their heritage.  Enrollment for the program is now in progress.

According to Rabbi Kevin Kleinman,

“We are very excited about the launch of this program, which will supplement KI’s one-day-a-week classroom program. By meeting with their instructors and peers in a classroom once each week, and then connecting with their teachers from home for Hebrew e-learning, students can include their families in the learning process as they explore and interpret prayers and study Hebrew.”

More after the jump.

Virtual Learning – Not Your Parent’s Hebrew School

KI’s new Hebrew e-learning curriculum combines traditional classroom instruction with an exciting new platform that allows elementary school-aged students to gain a greater appreciation for Tefillah (Jewish prayers) by using technology to interpret and explore their meanings and significance.

The core components of the e-Learning Hebrew Program include:

  • Required weekly Skype sessions with the student and his/her Hebrew teacher
  • Online projects that encourage students to demonstrate their mastery of concepts using video, glogs (digital posters) and multi-media presentations.
  • The virtual Tefillah created by students and their families will be saved to enhance communal worship and the child’s B’nai Mitzvah project.
  • Access to innovative technologies to enhance conversational Hebrew skills in fun and creative ways.

Rabbi Kleinman emphasizes,

“We are treading on new ground, but we believe the program will contribute greatly to the learning experience as well as draw students and their families together as they embark on this adventure in learning.”

About KI Blue Bell

Keneseth Israel was founded in 1847 to meet the needs of the growing Jewish population in the Philadelphia area. Over the next 158 years the congregation grew and its members spread out over Montgomery County. Due to the migration of members to the Blue Bell area, KI opened a second campus in Blue Bell in 2005. The congregation currently leases space from St. John Lutheran Church at 1802 Skippack Pike, Blue Bell. KI-Blue Bell offers monthly family-friendly Shabbat services, an engaging religious school accredited by the Reform Movement’s National Association of Temple Educators, and enriching educational and social programs.  

For information on enrolling in KI Religious School or participating in any of the many upcoming family events at KI Blue Bell, call 215-887-8700 or visit our website.

PELIE Now Accepting Applications for Technology Fellows

— Andrea D’Iorio

International Society for Technology in Education Conference

  • Application deadline: April 28, 2011
  • Conference: June 26-29, 2011

The Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education (PELIE) is now accepting applications for a fellowship to attend the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) 2011 conference, which will take place from June 26 to 29, in Philadelphia. ISTE’s annual conference and exposition is the world’s premier educational technology event, where 20,000 education and technology professionals from 60 countries unite for four days of professional learning and collaboration.

Individuals involved in part-time Jewish education for children are encouraged to apply. Applicants can come from all aspects of complementary Jewish education whether they are rabbis, educators, lay leaders or volunteers in synagogue schools, community programs, JCC initiatives, or youth groups. Fourteen fellowships are available.

More after the jump.
“By providing these awards, it is PELIE’s hope that fellows will have the opportunity to learn how the use of technology can impact their work, develop communities of practice with like-minded Jewish educators and contribute to building the field of technology and Jewish education,” says Adena Raub, PELIE’s information manager.

Fellows must apply in teams of two, in order to send more than one champion for educational technology back to each community. Once they return to their home communities, team members can support one another in working toward shifting the culture of their Jewish educational community.  

Selected fellows will have the opportunity to participate in keynote presentations, “bring your own laptop” sessions, poster sessions, the global gallery, demonstrations, affinity group meetings and more. The seven teams will attend a group dinner at ISTE, as well as the Jewish educators’ affinity session. Plus, as registrants of the ISTE conference, fellows gain one year of ISTE membership.

Fellows are required to provide a written essay about their experiences, teach what they learn to their colleagues upon their return, and participate in two webinars during the 2011-2012 school year. Both team members must commit to attending the entire ISTE conference. Each selected team will receive conference registration for both members, plus $700 per pair for expenses.

Click here to download the fellowship application. Applications must be submitted electronically to Adena Raub at [email protected] on or before April 28, 2011. Award recipients will be notified by mid-May. For more information about the conference and ISTE, visit http://www.isteconference.org/… For questions, please contact Adena Raub, PELIE’s information manager at [email protected]

About PELIE:

Founded in 2007, The Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education (PELIE) works to improve complementary (part time) Jewish education in multiple settings throughout the nation. PELIE accomplishes this through advocating, consulting, and researching the field; by highlighting and adapting models that work; and by funding with local partners to bring change to their communities. PELIE also works to bring technology into Jewish education along with a variety of other “tools” – assessment, organizational, and experiential – to impact the ever-changing field of complementary Jewish education.

Pittsburgh Jewish Community Offers Free Jewish Education

Celebrating decades of tradition in the Pittsburgh community, Pittsburgh Jewish Day Schools have announced a new program to provide free tuition for students who are new to Jewish day school in Pittsburgh and are entering grades 3-11 for the 2011-2012 school year. Pittsburgh Jewish Day Schools include Community Day School, Hillel Academy and Yeshiva Schools, located in Squirrel Hill.

More after the jump.
With tuition that ranges from $4,675 – $14,000 per year depending upon the school and age of the child, this program offers a unique opportunity for Jewish families to have their children experience a high quality private education coupled with a rich understanding of Jewish history, language, culture and traditions. Support for the program is coming from each of the three schools, as well as from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Centennial Fund for a Jewish Future.

“Pittsburgh Jewish Day Schools provide the highest quality private school education coupled with a deep and lasting connection to Jewish values,” said Chuck Perlow, Chairman of the Pittsburgh Jewish Day School Council. “With a strong connection to this community, Hillel Academy, Community Day School and Yeshiva Schools are working collaboratively to give more children and their families the opportunity to experience all that a Jewish Day School education has to offer.”

“Given their collective commitment to rigorous academics, students who attend one of the Pittsburgh Jewish Day Schools typically excel on their standard achievement tests (SAT’s) and go on to succeed in private schools, Ivy League and competitive colleges, universities and seminaries around the world,” said David Shapira, co-chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Jewish Community Foundation. The Foundation’s Centennial Fund for a Jewish Future, in conjunction with the schools, has underwritten the program offering the scholarship funds. “Across their spectrum, the Pittsburgh Jewish Day Schools offer the highest quality education with options that will suit the preferences and needs of any Jewish family.”

The free tuition program is for local, permanent residents who apply to one of the three Jewish Day Schools for the first time. The student must meet admission guidelines for the desired school and be currently enrolled in any school in Allegheny County. Families that are new to the area will not be eligible at this time. To qualify, students must be enrolled prior to the start of the 2011-2012 school year. Families interested in learning more about qualifying can go to www.pittsburghjewishdayschools.com or contact one of the three schools to schedule a tour.

“As a city, Pittsburgh needs strong neighborhoods in order to thrive,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. “For decades, the Pittsburgh Jewish Day Schools have been strong partners in creating a tremendously stable neighborhood in Squirrel Hill. For Jews and non-Jews alike, these schools are an important part of the fabric that makes this community unique. They have attracted students from around the world and led talented professionals to relocate to Pittsburgh over other regions, so their children can experience this unique Jewish Day School education.”

About Pittsburgh Jewish Day Schools
Pittsburgh Jewish Day Schools are both a magnet and an anchor for the community, contributing stability and a unique cooperation with our community partners. Across our spectrum and amid the umbrella of Pittsburgh Jewish Day Schools that are nestled in the Squirrel Hill community, we offer:

  • Community Day School: Founded in 1972, Community Day School, a Solomon Shechter Day School, nurtures 280 Jewish children from kindergarten through 8th grade to become young people who are academically strong, good people, knowledgeable Jews, and contributing citizens of K’lal Yisrael (the people of Israel), the United States, and our world. The school is committed to helping each individual child excel in his or her studies, in spirituality, on the athletic field, and in the social arena. Community Day School educators recognize that children learn at different rates, in different styles, and from diverse strengths, and the school builds programs that help them grow from strength to strength.

  • Hillel Academy: Founded in 1948, Hillel Academy has 242 students and offers an emphasis on Jewish and rigorous general studies, a love of Israel and recognition of the commitment to community service for children preschool through high school. A PA Pre-K Counts School, Hillel Academy offers the Isadore Joshowitz Early Childhood Center, a NAEYC accredited early childhood center for Jewish children beginning at age two and is committed to creating a community filled with inquisitive minds and thoughtful students who become strong Jewish leaders. We bring our students a top notch general studies education with the timeless teaching of Torah study and Jewish values.
  • Yeshiva Schools: Founded in 1943, Yeshiva Schools offers a comprehensive curriculum of secular and Judaic studies for children from preschool through high school. Approximately 400 students from diverse backgrounds attend Yeshiva. Dedicated to educating the whole child, Yeshiva imbues its students with a deep understanding of Torah that has inspired thousands of graduates to live as proud Jews in myriad professions in countries all over the world.

Learn Hebrew for Free

If you have ever wanted to learn Hebrew or another language (complete list follows the jump), the Lower Merion Library System and many other libraries are making it easier than ever and at no cost to you. Hebrew is offered at two levels: Mango Basic Hebrew teaches simple, practical skills for common, polite conversation in only a few short hours. Mango Hebrew Complete 2.0 teaches in-depth and comprehensive language and grammar skills.

This unique service teaches conversation skills for practical communication through fun and engaging interactive lessons, making learning a new language fast, easy and incredibly effective.

The system is completely web-based and remotely accessible, so you can learn at your leisure wherever you have an internet connection.

“As students listen to and repeat after native speakers, they learn more than just words and phrases; they learn how those pieces can be rearranged and combined to make new thoughts, new conversations, and even more practical communication.”

noted Christine Steckel, Director of Libraries.

Lower Merion Library System cardholders should  scroll down to the bottom of the LMLS Website and click on the Mango logo to get started.

A list of other languages follows the jump.
Languages courses offered by Mango for Libraries:

  • Arabic (Levantine) 35,000,000 speakers: Basic
  • Chinese (Mandarin) 1,365,000,000 speakers: Basic, Complete 1.0, Complete 2.0
  • Dari (Afghanistan, Pakistan) 9,000,000 speakers: Basic
  • Farsi (Persian, Iran) 100,000,000 speakers: Basic, Complete 2.0
  • French 77,000,000 speakers: Basic, Complete 1.0, Complete 2.0
  • German 105,000,000 speakers: Basic, Complete 1.0, Complete 2.0
  • Greek 12,000,000 speakers: Basic, Complete 1.0, Complete 2.0
  • Hebrew (Israel) 7,000,000 speakers: Basic, Complete 2.0
  • Hindi (India, Pakistan, Fiji) 490,000,000 speakers: Basic, Complete 2.0
  • Irish 355,000 speakers: Basic
  • Italian 70,000,000 speakers: Basic, Complete 1.0, Complete 2.0
  • Japanese 130,000,000 speakers: Basic, Complete 1.0, Complete 2.0
  • Korean 78,000,000 speakers: Basic, Complete 2.0
  • Pashto (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran) 26,000,000 speakers: Basic
  • Portuguese (Brazil) 200,000,000 speakers: Basic, Complete 1.0, Complete 2.0
  • Russian 164,000,000 speakers: Basic, Complete 1.0, Complete 2.0
  • Spanish (Latin America) 329,000,000 speakers: Basic, Complete 1.0, Complete 2.0
  • Tagalog (Philippines) 49,000,000 speakers: Basic
  • Thai 60,000,000 speakers: Basic, Complete 2.0
  • Turkish 70,000,000 speakers: Basic, Complete 2.0
  • Urdu (Pakistan, India) 250,000,000 speakers: Basic
  • Vietnamese 73,000,000 speakers: Basic, Complete 2.0
  • English as a second language: In Arabic, Chinese (Cantonese), Chinese (Mandarin), French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Turkish, and Vietnamese.

Agudath Israel Interacts with State Department & White House

Encouraging words about Israel, Foreign and Domestic Issues, from Obama Administration.
— Rabbi Avi Shafran

WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than 150 men and women took a day from their regular responsibilities to be part of an Agudath Israel of America delegation that arrived in Washington early last Thursday morning, July 29, for a day that saw nonstop meetings with members of Congress as well as both State Department and White House officials.  What the participants in the National Leadership Mission to Washington heard from the Administration on the two most important issues on their minds – America’s commitment to Israel’s security and federal education aid to nonpublic schools – was, in the words of one delegate, “clearly positive.”

The day began with Shacharis, of course, either on a bus headed south from the New York area or at the hotel where some participants had spent the previous night.  But it wasn’t long before all the Agudath Israel activists had gathered at the U.S. State Department, where they were addressed by Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs; Hannah Rosenthal, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism; and Douglas Davidson, Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues.

Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel Washington Office director and counsel, who organized the National Leadership Mission and facilitated the day’s meetings, offered greetings, and the proceedings were then turned over to Agudath Israel chairman of the board, Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger, who chaired the session and introduced the morning’s speakers.  

Mr. Feltman was the first to address the delegation.  He repeated the United States’ endorsement of a “two state solution” to the Israel-Palestinian situation.  At the same time, he took pains to state clearly and forcefully that the U.S.’s commitment to Israel is “unbreakable and unwavering,” citing “common interests” both countries share and “common threats” both countries face.  Mr. Feltman also addressed the situations in Iraq and Yemen, and responded to questions from delegates on Turkey’s recent actions and the incorrigibility of Hamas.

The next presenter was Ms. Rosenthal.  The Special Envoy spoke of her “personal roots” as a Jew and how her background informs her current official responsibility.  Referring to 2009 as “not a good year for either human rights or Jews,” Ms. Rosenthal identified several contemporary trends in anti-Semitism:  “old fashioned” hatred-fueled vandalism and blood libels, Holocaust denial, Holocaust “relativism” (comparisons that “diminish the scale and scope” of the Shoah), Holocaust glorification (rife in the Islamic world), anti-Israel stances tainted with anti-Jewish attitudes (the disgraced journalist Helen Thomas’ unguarded statement of several weeks ago, the Special Envoy said, was “a gift to us” in having exposed and example of such ill will) and anti-Semitism born of a general disdain of “the other,” particularly in Europe.

Ms. Rosenthal spoke of the tools her office uses to identify and combat anti-Jewish attitudes and acts, and took questions from delegates about the United Nations Human Rights Council and the sorry state of hate-filled Palestinian textbooks.

Mr. Davidson, the final State Department official to address the delegates, spoke about the misappropriation of Jewish-owned property and valuables during and after the Holocaust, as well as the desecration of Jewish holy sites (such as synagogues and cemeteries).  He outlined the efforts of his office to do what can be done to right such wrongs.  The results, he admitted, can never be more than (referencing the title of Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat’s 2004 book) “imperfect justice,” but what restitution and restoration can be had, he insisted, must be had.

Early afternoon found the group on Capitol Hill for a luncheon that was attended or visited by a veritable bi-partisan parade of Senators and Congressmen, each of whom briefly welcomed and addressed the delegation.  The Senators, who were warmly introduced by the luncheon session chairman, Agudath Israel executive vice president Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, included Scott Brown (R – MA), Benjamin Cardin (D – MD), Saxby Chambliss (R – GA), Johnny Isakson (R – GA), Joseph I. Lieberman (ID – CT), Robert Menendez (D – NJ), Charles E. Schumer (D – NY) and Debbie Stabenow (D – MI).

The Representatives who addressed the assemblage were: William “Bill” Cassidy of Louisiana, Steven Rothman of New Jersey, John P. Sarbanes of Maryland and Anthony D. Weiner of New York.  In addition, Representatives Yvette Clarke of New York and Bill Pascrell of New Jersey joined the lunch gathering as well.

Highlights of the luncheon included a current of strong statements of support for Israel’s right to defend herself, Senator Isakson’s recall of his response to a Georgia hinterlands talk-show caller who warily asked if he was a Jew (“No, but I’d be very proud if I was”), Senator Brown’s statement that the Obama Administration “needs to be more public about” the fact that “Israel is our strongest ally in the region,” Senator Menendez’ discovery (having been so informed by Senator Lieberman) that his surname is on a list of common Spanish Jewish names, Congressman Weiner’s strong words concerning the “injustice going on” in the Rubashkin case and Senator Lieberman’s heartfelt words about how legislators’ and American citizens’ acceptance and even appreciation of his Shabbos observance says much about America – a “different place” for Jews, he stressed, historically speaking.

After the luncheon, the Agudath Israel delegation proceeded to the White House.  

Before the session began, it was noted that Rabbi Zwiebel had missed one of his son’s and new daughter-in-law’s Sheva Brachos the previous night because of the Washington Mission, and that he would be leaving a bit before the program was over to join that night’s Sheva Brachos seudah in Brooklyn.  A spontaneous chorus of “Siman Tov U’Mazal Tov” ensued, perhaps a first for the White House.

Rabbi Cohen chaired the White House session, and outlined some of the issues that would be discussed, explaining their pertinence to the Orthodox community’s interests and describing Agudath Israel’s deep involvement in promoting those issues and advancing those interests.

The delegates were greeted by Susan Sher, a key Administration liaison to the Jewish community and the First Lady’s chief of staff.  Ms. Sher spoke briefly to the delegates about her responsibilities regarding Jewish outreach and about the projects undertaken by Mrs. Obama, and recounted a story about the media-noted White House seder this past Pesach.  She was, however, tight-lipped about who found the afikoman and what was received as reward for the successful hunt.

Less entertaining but more substantive was the address that followed, by Roberto J. Rodríguez, who serves in the White House Domestic Policy Council as Special Assistant to President Obama for Education.  Mr. Rodriguez addressed a number of educational issues, including early childhood programs and standards reform.  The Administration, he said, embraced the goals of the “No Child Left Behind” law, an initiative of the George W. Bush administration, and, impressed his listeners by insisting that “we’re committed to preserving” the equitability of private and public schools with regard to the law’s implementation.  During the presidential campaign, there was much speculation about whether an Obama administration would be sympathetic to the needs of the nonpublic school community.

Agudath Israel delegates and staff  posed challenging questions to the Administration official, who responded thoughtfully, welcoming the input and challenges, and extending an offer to follow up and “work together” to address the needs of religious schools and how the government might better help such schools survive and thrive.  While Agudath Israel’s Washington Office has been actively involved with the White House and Department of Education on these issues on an ongoing basis, this public (and, later, private) interaction with Mr. Rodriguez allowed parents and professionals to share their unique perspectives “from the field” – a vantage point in which he seemed very interested.

Next to speak with the Agudath Israel delegation was Mara Vanderslice, Deputy Director for the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  She cited the contributions of the nation’s faith-based communities to addressing societal ills and declared the Obama Administration’s commitment to the importance of equity for religious institutions – not only in the awarding of federal social service funding but also in the administration of such programs.  “While we want to respect the separation of church and state,” she said, “we are committed to religious groups being able to maintain their religious beliefs even as they participate in faith-based grants.” As Agudath Israel’s long-standing and prominent advocacy on this issue has heavily stressed the religious liberty of program participants, this was welcome reassurance.

The final two Administration officials to meet with the Agudath Israel delegation were, first, Dan Shapiro, the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Middle East and North Africa, and the White House’s point man on Israel; and Dennis Ross, the NSC’s Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region, and the Administration’s chief advisor on the Iranian situation.  This segment of the session was “closed door” and reporters and delegates were asked to turn off any recording devices.

Both officials went into some detail that is beyond the scope of what can be published, but in general, Mr. Shapiro spoke of the Administration’s ongoing interaction with Israeli officials, and of President Obama’s request of Congress to allocate $205 million for the Iron Dome missile-interception system Israel is developing.  He also noted that the threats to Israel include not only terrorism and military attack but the delegitimizing of the country itself.  Mr. Shapiro declared the Administration’s determination to join Israel in that battle, too, noting its walk-out at Durban II, its efforts to prevent the Goldstone Report from advancing and its opposition to the United Nation’s condemnation of Israel over the “Turkish flotilla” affair.

For his part, Mr. Ross also vigorously asserted the Obama Administration’s commitment to Israel, and addressed the vexing issue of Iran and its nuclear program.  In a detailed and wide ranging analysis, he made the case for the efficacy of economic sanctions, and contended that the recent intensification of economic pressure on Iran has already shown signs that it is having an effect.  
Both men’s addresses were, in the words of one delegate, “impressive, even encouraging.”

After the National Leadership Mission’s end, Rabbi Zwiebel had words of thanks for Rabbi Cohen, and the Agudath Israel Washington Office director offered thanks of his own to all the Senators, Representatives and Administration officials who had offered comments to the delegation.  He expressed special gratitude to Ms. Mary Pensabene and Ms. Eileen Place, of the State Department’s Office of Public Liaison; and to Ms. Sher and Ms. Danielle Borrin, Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Special Assistant to the Vice President.  The efforts of those officials, Rabbi Cohen said, in facilitating, respectively, the State Department and White House interactions were “truly invaluable.”

Rabbi Cohen also stressed the importance of missions like Thursday’s, which “allow our community and government officials to directly interact and communicate our concerns on issues of importance to us.”  He emphasized as well how the participation of delegates from states across the nation provides crucial weight to Agudath Israel’s presence in the nation’s capital.  “National Leadership Missions like this one,” he said, “increase Agudath Israel’s stature in Washington, which in turn empowers us to accomplish the maximum we can for the community.”

What is a National Leadership Mission, Anyway?

For the past three decades, Agudath Israel of America has been organizing National Leadership Missions to Washington approximately every two years.  The purpose of the delegations, explains Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the organization’s executive vice president, is manifold.

“First and foremost,” he says, “the missions demonstrate to elected officials in a direct and impressive way the geographical and demographic diversity of the Orthodox Jewish community in the United States.  This year we had delegates from 16 states, and there was a particularly strong showing of younger askonim from many locales.

“Secondly, the makeup of the group provides members of Congress and Administration officials an accurate and impressive picture of the diversity of the frum community itself.  They see Chassidim alongside clean-shaven men who, aside from their hats or yarmulkes, might look like any other citizens; they see black coats alongside business suits.  And when they meet delegates, they come to realize they are meeting students, scholars, businesspeople, doctors, lawyers and other professionals.”

Rabbi Zwiebel adds that the impression made on government officials goes beyond educating them about the Orthodox community.  “It also lays the groundwork for the effectiveness of the work Agudath Israel – and especially our Washington Office – does the rest of the year.”  When such officials are approached about an issue or situation important to the community, he explains, “they have a memory – or can be reminded – of who we are.”

“These missions,” Rabbi Zwiebel adds, “also provide an important service by getting comments and commitments from government officials ‘on the record’.”  Elected and appointed officials can thereby be held accountable for anything they may have stated or pledged to the delegation.

What is more, the Agudath Israel leader notes, “there is a special chizuk provided all of us who are involved in ongoing shtadlonus with the government by the time and effort so freely and enthusiastically given by members of the community who participate in the missions.”

Chizuk is also provided to the delegates themselves, Rabbi Zwiebel asserts, by their fellow delegates.  “When Jews committed to the principles that underlay Agudath Israel come together from diverse communities and cites,” he explains, “there is a trading of notes and reports from their respective environments that allows all of the delegates to gain a better understanding of parts of the frum world they might otherwise have little or no knowledge about.  And the sharing of information, experiences and strategies, as one might imagine, often leads to more effective shtadlonus on all fronts.”

Rabbi Zwiebel takes pains to note that “True shtadlonus differs from what the larger world calls ‘lobbying’ or ‘advocacy.’  At Agudas Yisroel, we have been trained that the issues of the day, and our approach toward dealing with them, must be filtered through the prism of daas Torah and the guidance of our Gedolei Yisroel.

“Furthermore, we approach our mission with the essential realization that it is not our efforts themselves that can bear fruit, but rather that our summoning the effort and giving up time can merit Hashem’s intercession on behalf of Klal Yisroel.

That mindset was evident even the evening before this year’s mission, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Silver Spring, Maryland, where Agudath Israel representatives from across the country delivered reports and briefings on their activities.  As a prefact to those reports, Rabbi Berel Weisbord, Mashgiach Ruchni of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, delivered divrei chizuk vi’his’orerus to the assembled, focusing on what it means to be “osek bitzorchei tzibbur be’emunah” – and why the reward for such faithful askonus is so great.

Says Rabbi Zwiebel: “We are blessed to live in a country where we have access to our government leaders.  Experience has shown that if we use that access well, and within the framework of an authentic Torah Judaism approach, bi’siyata di’Shmaya, we can often accomplish great things for Klal Yisroel.”

Adult Jewish Learning Thrives in Greater Philadelphia

Gratz College Melton Adult Mini-School Graduates 11th Class, Gears Up for New Season.

— Liz Nover

“What we did this past year and the year before was no less than to forge a link in the chain of the immortality of our people… minds were opened, eyes were opened, hearts were opened!”  These were the words of Gloria Salmansohn, Gratz-Melton Class of 2010, addressing the graduates, their instructors and guests at the June 2 Commencement. Salmansohn and about three dozen others hailing from the five-county area were celebrating the culmination of two years of interactive text study together through the Gratz-Melton program.

The graduates, who reflect great diversity in their Jewish backgrounds and levels of observance, took four university-level courses over two years, giving them a broad and deep understanding of Jewish practice, beliefs, ethics and history, through exposure to classical and modern Jewish sources.  Theirs was the same curriculum that is used in the over 60 Melton sites around the globe, and its goal, well-accomplished according to fellow graduate Betti Kahn, is for students to recognize “how specific teachings [from our sages throughout history] are precisely applicable to our own and our families’ lives.”  In a unique Diaspora-Israel partnership, the Melton curriculum is developed and continually revised at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  Students have the opportunity to continue their habit of weekly study in Gratz-Melton alumni and community courses that are designed both at Hebrew University and here in Philadelphia by the faculty members themselves.

Since 1998, the Gratz College Melton Adult Mini-School has been an integral part of Gratz College.  The Gratz-Melton faculty members, area residents who are scholars, rabbis, professors, and passionate laypeople, are as diverse as the students.  They bring their backgrounds, knowledge and practices to the table while embracing a pluralistic and tolerant perspective in a sophisticated, warm atmosphere.

The entire community is invited to Gratz College to “Experience Melton” during Camp Melton, August 2-6, with additional times and locations on the Main Line, in Center City and in Phoenixville.  “Campers” have a choice of morning, afternoon and evening sessions with Gratz-Melton faculty.  These sessions are illustrative of the type of classes taking place during the academic year.  Camp Melton offers an opportunity to learn about the program and ask questions with actual students, teachers, and the Director, Liz Nover.

Gratz-Melton will open its 13th season with locations in Elkins Park, Main Line and Center City.  Alumni and community courses on a wide variety of subjects will be offered at these locations, and in the Chester/Delaware County area as well.  For further information please contact the Gratz-Melton office, 215-635-7300, x143, or [email protected]  

New Jewish Early Learning Center in Center City

Megan Nachod, Buerger Center Director, meets with Sharon Schwartz, Buerger parent, and her 19-month-old daughter Ava to complete the enrollment process.  The Buerger Early Learning Center is a joint program of Congregation Rodeph Shalom and Federation Early Learning Services (FELS).
— Lynn B. Edelman

On August 30, the dream of a full day Jewish child care program in Center City Philadelphia will become a reality as the Buerger Early Learning Center officially opens its doors.  The center, which will be located at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, 619 North Broad Street, represents a partnership between the synagogue and Federation Early Learning Services (FELS).  
Maddy Malis, FELS president and CEO, says that community response to the project has been “overwhelming.”  “Our phones have been ringing off the hook with inquiries from parents who have been enrolling their children at a rate that far exceeds our first year projections,” she comments, stating her belief that Center City families are “hungry for a high quality, Jewish full day educational experience for their infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers.”  She comments that “FELS’ reputation for high quality programming and community confidence in Congregation Rodeph Shalom has fueled excitement in this new project.”

Among the first children to be enrolled was 19-month-old Ava, daughter of Sharon Schwartz and her husband Kenny.  Sharon and her sister Veronica attended the Lassin Early Learning Center in Northeast Philadelphia, which is also administered by FELS.  Their parents immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union in 1975.  “FELS did so much to help our family during our resettlement.  I am very appreciative of all the support that we received,” Schwartz says, adding “I am looking forward to my daughter following in my footsteps.”

FELS Board Chair Marcia Wasserman expressed her confidence in the Buerger Early Learning Center’s Director, Megan Nachod.  Nachod, who most recently served as director of the Jewish early childhood program at Adath Emanu-El in Mt. Laurel, N.J., and as an Early Intervention Specialist at the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, has a master’s degree in early childhood education and is certified by the American Montessori Society.  “She has extensive teaching and administrative experience and the ideal personality to make this a first-rate center,” Wasserman maintains, adding that “Preschool teacher Suzy Curcio has comparable credentials and experience.”

Tom Perloff, director of Finance and Development for Congregation Rodeph Shalom, shares Wasserman’s enthusiasm.  “Every step of the way, we are creating a space and program that is purpose-driven.  The vibrant, fresh, custom-renovated space is almost complete:  construction is on schedule, classroom equipment and materials have been ordered and a first-rate director and other key staff members have been hired,” he says.

Rabbi Jill Maderer, who has been involved in the project since its inception, notes the symbolism of opening the doors to the new facility just ten days before Rosh Hashanah.  “We are excited that before the Jewish New Year, children and parents will be filling the Buerger Center.  Everyone’s hard work and and determination have paid off in such a meaningful way. August 30, our opening day, will be a dream come true,” she says.

Federation Early Learning Services enrolls infants, toddlers, pre-school and school-age children from diverse economic, religious and racial backgrounds on a year-round basis.  FELS serves more than 1000 each year in its 11 programs throughout the Delaware Valley.

Meet Center staff and learn more about the program during one of two scheduled open houses, Thursday, July 22, 4-7 p.m., or Sunday, August 1, 10 a.m. 12 noon.  RSVP to Center Director Megan Nachod, 267535-2643, or [email protected]  Parking is available onsite and refreshments will be served.