Rant of the Week

by Joel Lurie Grishaver

I hate model programs. If you live anywhere in the world of Jewish life, model programs seem to be the magical fountain of that life. Whether it is foundations, federations, synagogues, or individual teachers, the model of collecting “models” seems to be the latest messianic movement.

Go to a conference of teachers and you will find yourself glutted by the “handout queens.” These are Jewish education’s own “bag ladies.” Try to teach and you will find yourself attacked by an endless progression of people whose monologue begins, “I can’t…” and ends with “but can I have the handout?” It is as if the great teachers know the hidden path to the secret Sargasso Handout Sea—and the excellence of their instruction can be gleaned off old session outlines and worksheets designed to fit someone else’s teaching rhythm. I have often fantasized about offering a session called “classic handouts” and doing nothing more than bringing cartons of things I have passed out at previous sessions and let people pick over them at their will. I am convinced that it would be a great success.

Likewise, as federations and synagogues have adopted the dementia of “planning,” the fantasy that one could improve local conditions by simply collecting and imitating the best of what has been done elsewhere has become epidemic. Having exhausted pre-schools, families, Israel experiences, and Hillel, the fad du jour this year seems to be teens. I have received more phone calls than you can imagine asking about the best model programs. The key questions seem to be (a) a creative time for Hebrew Highs to meet, (b) the top ten service projects that David Letterman could list, (c) a cookbook of six-week elective courses, and (d) a definitive study on the best number of accompanying weekends. Likewise, in the synagogue world, the phrase “BJ-like” has become the single most used adjective.

The world of foundations may, however, be the mutant monkey virus at the heart of all this. For a long time they have mainly funded only model programs and usually have refused to provide funding for on-going staff. They have looked to “innovations” and not innovators to be the heart of the solution. This is handout mania on a grand scale. People who wanted to beat on the textbook industry have long quoted Heschel’s well stated phrase, “we need text people, not textbooks.” I wish we would apply it to the rest of Jewish life and look for “program people” and other good teachers, invest emotionally and fiscally in them—and save an awful lot of Xeroxing.