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Joshua Stanton
Joshua Stanton
Joshua Stanton is a Jewish thinker and interfaith leader

Torah Games? Bringing Torah to Life Through Game Design


by: on September 25th, 2011 | 3 Comments »

For many Jews, the Torah seems inaccessible. It is distant historically, culturally and linguistically. The Biblical figures seem far removed and unapproachable and the scenes and vignettes do not seem applicable to everyday life.

Yet this sense of distance from the Torah may be as much a function of religious education as it is of the ancient nature of the text itself. Hebrew schools face structural problems in engaging students, since many classes are convened on evenings and weekends, when already over-programmed young people are either tired or less receptive to further learning opportunities. Much of the same may be said for adult learning programs.

Teachers are pressed to overcompensate for the inherent timing challenges with programs that entice and engage students and draw them into learning. But these are often difficult lessons to prepare.

It is increasingly becoming recognized that if the Torah is to guide the lives of young Jews, it must itself come alive, and be an experience rather than just another objective in an already long day of school and extracurricular activities. This notion is supported by a Dr. Jack Wertheimer‘s landmark study, Schools that Work: What We Can Learn from Good Jewish Secondary Schools. According to Wertheimer, successful supplementary Jewish education programs exhibited at least three major characteristics, in addition to several administrative aims: they “develop a community among their students, staff and parents”; emphasize “taking Jewish study seriously” and “engage in experiential learning.”

In truly rabbinic fashion, a new question has emerged to answer the longstanding challenge of Jewish education: Could it be that all three of these goals could be achieved through games — not simply by playing them, but also in designing them?

Rabbi Owen Gottlieb certainly thinks so. A resident faculty member at CLAL and Jim Joseph Fellow at NYU working towards a Ph.D. in Education and Jewish Studies, he founded ConverJent to be an oasis of “Seriously Fun Jewish Games for Learning.” ConverJent provides workshops and training in Torah learning through game design and has organized a new Jewish Games Roundtable, as well as designs digital and offline games for Jewish learners.


Guest Post: “Making the Internet Moral,” By Chris Stedman


by: on November 29th, 2010 | 1 Comment »

Is the Internet destroying our morals?

Earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI issued a warning that the Internet was “numbing” young people and creating an “educational emergency – a challenge that we can and must respond to with creative intelligence.”

Speaking at a Vatican conference on culture, Benedict also expressed concern that “a large number of young people” are “establish[ing] forms of communication that do not increase humaneness but instead risk increasing a sense of solitude and disorientation.”

Benedict’s comments created an uproar, but he has a point.Studies show that Internet addiction is linked to depression; in 2007, the comedy websiteCracked offered a surprisingly moving take on this phenomenon titled “7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable.”

It’s tempting, knowing this, to suggest that we all take a step away from our keyboards, turn off our computers, and go find a field to frolic in.


Bonhoeffer’s Theological Drive to Protect Jews from Nazis


by: on October 4th, 2010 | 2 Comments »

This article was written with John Shellito, who served as its primary author. Johnis a student at Union Theological Seminary, interested in how faith communities can resist oppression in economic, ecological, and social spheres. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 2008 and is currently pursuing ordination in the Episcopal Church.

“He was never what one might today term a culture warrior, nor could he easily be labeled conservative or liberal,” claims Eric Metaxas in one of many pungent lines from his groundbreaking new biography of Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Yet Bonhoeffer has often been pigeonholed as a courageous radical, working secretly for the assassination of Adolf Hitler during World War II. At times, this story of Bonhoeffer the assassin has become so prominent in popular memory as to occlude another important aspect of his life: his work to formulate a theology that both embraced Christ and defended the Jews as the chosen people of God.


Guest Post: “The artist formerly known as Molly Norris,” By Christopher Stedman


by: on September 23rd, 2010 | 2 Comments »

Last week the atheist blogosphere lit up with reports that Molly Norris, the Seattle cartoonist who inadvertently inspired “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” (EDMD), had been forced to change her identity and go into hiding due to death threats she received from extremists.

How did these same bloggers who promoted EDMD respond to this news? They expressed sadness and frustration. And who wouldn’t? Poor Norris – imagine having to give up everything you knew because your life was in danger. They are right to condemn those who have targeted her.

However, many also used it as yet another opportunity to take broad swipes at Muslims.

For example, popular atheist writer P.Z. Myers addressed Islam as if it were a single entity, writing: “Come on, Islam. Targeting defenseless cartoonists is your latest adventure in bravery? That’s pathetic. It’s bad enough to be the religion of hate, but to be the religion of cowardice ought to leave you feeling ashamed.”

I’m disappointed at such assessments, and I have a feeling Norris would be too. After EDMD took off, she insisted that she did not wish for it to become a movement. In a post on her now defunct website, Norris asked people to try to find common ground with others instead, adding: “The vitriol this ‘day’ has brought out… is offensive to the Muslims who did nothing to endanger our right to expression in the first place. I apologize to people of Muslim faith and ask that this ‘day’ be called off.”


Scriptural Reasoning: A Student Movement for Interfaith Understanding


by: on August 5th, 2010 | 2 Comments »

Scriptural Reasoning, a technique developed at Cambridge University and the University of Virginia, is known as much for its peer-reviewed journal as for its august participants. But it is on the verge of going mainstream, shaking up the way we understand each other’s scriptures and taking root on college campuses around the country.

Approximately twenty Scriptural Reasoning (SR) groups exist across North America and the United Kingdom. But that number is likely to balloon as college chaplains take SR to their campuses. Two leading scholars of SR, Peter Ochs, Edgar Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies at the University of Virginia, and Homayra Ziad, Assistant Professor of Religion at Trinity College, brought the technique to the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Chaplains (NACUC) this past spring, where it was warmly received. Their goal was to share the methods of SR to ignite a movement among chaplains and, ultimately, colleges and universities.

Now, with the school year approaching, a number of chaplains have followed up with plans to start SR groups on their campuses as a way to enhance inter-religious engagement more broadly. Paul Sorrentino, Director of Religious Life at Amherst College and organizer of this year’s NACUC conference, plans to do just that, noting, “I believe it is both respectful of the texts and of the people of different faiths who study them.”


Jesse Rifkin: Real “Bad Jew”


by: on July 8th, 2010 | Comments Off

I’m a bad Jew,” a friend said, grinning ear to ear and then biting into a bacon-egg-and-cheese bagel sandwich. Even looking back on the Jewish gangsters of the 1920′s, socialist Jews of the 1930′s, hippies of the ’60′s and punks of the ’80′s, seldom has being a “bad Jew” seemed so trendy.

Time and time again, American Jews simultaneously act and critique their own actions, rigidly adhere to ancient precepts and then question them. As a community, we create the counter thesis to our own tradition through rebellion, with the rebellion itself long since becoming a tradition. The problem is that “bad Jews” don’t always play their part so well. Some don’t rebel against particular Jewish traditions or approaches to theology. Instead, they actively adhere to American Jewish cultural traditions — bagels and lox on the weekends, self-effacing humor, and political activism — while still claiming that they are somehow devious. How rebellious can conformity be?

True rebelliousness has been partially relegated to literature, where a set of young Jewish giants is replacing a generation of retiring ones. But how long can Jonathan Safran Foer‘s brilliant, if incessant, references to his sex life be considered truly rebellious? Are we losing our tradition of losing our tradition?


The People of the Book Teach Their History Online


by: on June 13th, 2010 | Comments Off

One of many images from www.yivoencyclopedia.org

From liturgy to ideology, Yiddish literature and the mass immigration to the United States, Eastern Europe birthed many of modern Jewry’s most important intellectual and social trends. Its impact on Jewish history is on par with that of Medieval Spain and al-Andalus, and even in some respects the period of the great Talmudic academies in Baghdad.

Yet its incredible history and derivate lessons have been largely limited to books and those familiar with them. The People of the Book have long allowed their expansive history to be confined by the medium through which it was presented. This trend has become particularly stark in recent years, as the Internet has expanded the ways in which history and knowledge can be transmitted, as well as the audience with which it can be shared.

Even as Jewish organizations have created websites, online forums, and online publications in response to the growing demand for online resources, Jewish education has remained largely offline. Even as the digitization of the Talmud has facilitated rabbinic scholarship, it has seemed taboo to suggest that Jewish history, philosophy, theology, and liturgy could be accessed through anything but a book or a knowledgeable person.

Just this past week, however, theYIVO Institute for Jewish Research made significant headway in changing the notion that education for the People of the Book might somehow be confined to books alone. After extensive planning and preparation, the institute launched an online edition of theYIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. While it may not leave book learning totally behind (the print edition is being published by Yale University Press), it is set to alter the way that Jews learn about the heartland of Eastern European Jewry.


Seismic Shift in Seminary Education


by: on April 20th, 2010 | 8 Comments »

Photo by Katya Dreyer-Oren

How should future religious leaders be trained so that they can at once be rooted in their traditions and equipped to work with people of others? This question has been asked with increased urgency, as American theological seminaries have tried to adapt to what has become the most religiously diverse country in history. Answers have proven somewhat elusive.

This week, from April 14 – 16, a group of remarkable visionaries and emerging inter-religious leaders convened at Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College to discuss potential answers during the pioneering CIRCLE National Conference 2010. Participants included Brad Hirshfield, co-Founder of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Ingrid Mattson, Director of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary and Executive Director of the Islamic Society of North America, and Stephen Graham, Director of Faculty Development and Initiatives in Theological Education at the Association of Theological Schools.

It seemed fitting to hold the conference jointly at two of the few seminaries to cohabitate the same campus and maintain a close administrative and curricular relationship. Students at Hebrew College and Andover Newton can cross-register for courses, while several classes are team-taught by professors from both institutions. The campus also houses the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE), whose “mission is to nurture a new generation of moral and spiritual leaders equipped for service in a religiously diverse world” through a fellowship program, leadership training, and inter-campus initiatives and programs. Its administrators, Dr. Jennifer Peace and Rabbi Or Rose, saw the conference as a natural extension of their work.


Meet HuffPost’s New Religion Editor, Paul Raushenbush


by: on March 4th, 2010 | Comments Off

On February 24, Rev. Paul Raushenbush issued a call for articles entitled “Dear Religious (and Sane) America” to inaugurate the launch of the Huffington Post’s new religion section. According to the article,

HuffPost Religion is dedicated to providing a provocative, respectful, and hopefully productive forum for addressing the ways in which religion intersects our personal, communal, national and international life. HuffPost Religion will demonstrate the vibrant diversity of religious traditions, perspectives and experiences that exist alongside and inform one another in America and throughout the world.

Huffington is clearly trying to expand its reach and become one of the big players in religion media, much as it already has in politics, popular culture, and even business. Based on initial responses to the section, it appears to be well on its way.


Fears of a Future Rabbi


by: on December 13th, 2009 | 1 Comment »


Many religious leaders like to feel in control and give others advice. Though I am still a very much a rabbi-in-progress, with three-and-a-half years of study to go before ordination, I think it would show a great deal more strength for clergy to admit their shortcomings and be honest about how often they (and fairly soon soon we) don’t know what to do or how to do it.

In the spirit of seeking, rather than giving, advice, I wanted to share some of the fears that I have about my future career – and lifestyle – as a rabbi. I was recently asked to record these as part of a professional development course at Hebrew Union College but thought they might be of interest here and foment conversation about the difficult life’s choices that many religious leaders face.