Obama conference call with rabbis covers education, the meaning of the shofar, support for Israel

Barack Obama told a conference call of rabbis this morning that he supports government funding for after-school and mentoring programs in faith-based schools.

Speaking to 900 rabbis on a pre-Rosh Hashanah call, Obama said he opposes “vouchers” for private schools, but would continue to support funding, as is currently provided in the No Child Left Behind law, for after-school, tutoring, mentoring and summer programs at private and religious schools, according to a press release from the Orthodox Union and other rabbis who participated in the call.

Participants said Obama talked about a number of issues and took four questions from leaders of the four major denominations during the more than 40 minutes he spent on the call. The economy, education, energy, Israel and Iran were among the topics he discussed, reiterating the “unacceptability” of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.

With the call coming less than two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the Democratic nominee wished the group “Shanah Tovah.” He also discussed how the shofar raises people from “slumber” to “set out on a better path” and how he hoped his campaign could do the same, according to rabbis on the call.

Rabbi Sam Gordon, who introduced Obama and serves as co-chair of “Rabbis for Obama,” said he believed that a presidential candidate speaking to hundreds of rabbis was “unprecedented” during a political campaign, and that Obama showed an impressive “depth of knowledge” — at one point referring to the largest modern Orthodox high school in Chicago by name, the Ida Crown Academy, when discussing faith-based schools.

The one complaint about the call was the speech of the other rabbi introducing Obam by Elliot Dorff, vice chair of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and a professor at the American Jewish University (AJU). One rabbi who did not wish to be identified said Dorff’s speech was “way too partisan” and the Orthodox Union’s blog said Dorff essentially compared John McCain to Haman.

The Obama campaign has released portions of his remarks on the call:

“I know that for rabbis this is the busiest time of the year as you prepare for the High Holy Days. So I am grateful for a few minutes of your time. I extend my New Years greetings to you and to your congregations and communities. I want to wish everybody a Shana Tovah and I hope that you will convey my wishes to all of those you pray and celebrate with this Rosh Hashanah.

The Jewish New Year is unlike the new years of any other cultures. In part because it’s not simply a time for revelry; it’s a time for what might be called determined rejoicing. A time to put your affairs with other people in order so you can honestly turn to God. A time to recommit to the serious work of tikkun olamof mending the world.”

Senator Obama noted the significance of the Shofar in our lives for Rosh Hashanah and beyond, stating:

“And I know that the Shofar is going to be blown in your synagogues over Rosh Hashanah and there are many interpretations of its significance. One that I have heard that resonates with me is rousing us from our slumber so that we recognize our responsibilities and repent for our misdeeds and set out on a better path. The people in every community across this land join our campaign and I like to think that they are sounding that Shofar and to rouse this nation out of its slumber and to compel us to confront our challenges and ensure a better path. It’s a call to action. So as this New Year dawns, I am optimistic about our ability to overcome the challenges we face and the opportunity that we can bring the change we need not only to our nation but also to the world.”

Barack Obama also stated the need for leadership in both our troubled economy and foreign policy. Speaking of his recent trip to Israel and his unwavering commitment to the US-Israel relationship and Israel’s security, he noted: “I think that it’s also important to recognize that throughout my career in the State Legislature and now in the U.S. Senate I have been a stalwart friend of Israel. On every single issue related to Israel’s security, I have been unwavering, and will continue to be unwavering. My belief is that Israel’s security is sacrosanct and we have to ensure that as the soul democracy in the Middle East, one of our greatest allies in the world, one that shares a special relationship with us and shares our values, we have to make sure that they have the support whether its financial or military to sustain their security and the hostile environment. And its also important that we are an effective partner with them in pursuing the possibilities of peace in the future, and that requires not only active engagement and negotiations that may take place with Palestinians but it also requires that we stand tough and with great clarity when it comes to Iran and the unacceptability of them possessing nuclear weapons. During my recent visit to Israel, I had the occasion to meet with all of the major political players. That was my second visit there and I think that they all came away with assurance of my commitment with respect to Israel”

Get the best baruch for your buck when you hire a tutor

Most students consider their b’nai mitzvah studies as stimulating as a game of mah jongg with Bubbe.

For some reason, the idea of studying an extra hour each week in addition to school, sports and other extracurricular activities doesn’t quite excite overscheduled Jewish youth.

But beyond that, many students lack the means to truly understand the value and importance of a b’nai mitzvah. And sometimes this apathy can resonate throughout the year of preparation.

One way to ensure your soon-to-be bar or bat mitzvah is on track and ready for the big day is to hire a tutor.

The b’nai mitzvah tutor serves not only as a religious teacher, but also as a motivator. The right tutor can make your child want to study and want to be more involved in the process. He or she can even turn a boring hour-long session into a fun-filled religious learning activity.

But how do you differentiate between a capable tutor and incompetent flop? At $65 per hour for 40 to 50 weeks, you had better be sure you don’t hire someone whose sole intent is soaking up your dough by throwing a few “baruchs” your child’s way during the one-hour session. Even worse than wasting your money, your child could not only lose valuable study time, but also learn poor study skills and develop a negative attitude toward religious study. The tutor has the potential to make or break your child’s b’nai mitzvah experience and thus, fundamentally shapes their religious involvement. For that, choosing the tutor could be one of the most important aspects of the b’nai mitzvah process.

Unfortunately, finding a competent tutor can be a true quest. Be sure to consider a few key points when picking the right tutor.

Has your perspective tutor bothered to open a siddur in the last year, let alone attend services at a synagogue? Is the tutor you’re interviewing relying on his or her own synagogue education and a few Debbie Freidman songs? Does the tutor’s trope match that used in your congregation? What do past clients have to say about the tutor, as well as about his or her temperament?

B’nai mitzvah preparation “is like a prescription … if you fill it, then you’ll get to where you need to get to,” said tutor Jeff Bernhardt, a 20-year private b’nai mitzvah tutor who also works at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Bernhardt says one of the key characteristics of an effective tutor is knowledge of the topic. The b’nai mitzvah tutor must know the Torah trope, haftarah trope and every prayer required by the congregation, in addition to the tunes each synagogue employs.

The tutor to avoid is someone who relies primarily on their own adolescent education to help him or her through the lessons, as well as one stuck on his or her own tunes and trope, rather than the ones used at the student’s synagogue.

The ideal tutor coordinates with your shul’s cantor — regardless of whether he or she is affiliated with the synagogue — and takes the necessary steps to ensure that the lessons taught fit in with the congregation’s customs.

Another important characteristic of a decent tutor is to “know where the student is developmentally” and from there establish practical expectations, Bernhardt said. The ideal tutor should be able to determine the student’s Hebrew skills during the first lesson and create solid goals based on those skills. And if your child has developmental delays that require special consideration, be sure that the tutor is not only aware of these needs but is capable of addressing them.

Prior to each session, parents and tutors should also meet to review progress toward the student’s goals, identifying positive results and areas that require more work.

An effective tutor should make the student want to succeed, in addition to understanding the difficulties of going through the b’nai mitzvah process. “Being encouraging” and “sensitive” to the student’s needs are major characteristics to look for in a tutor, Bernhardt said.

Tutors who have their own idea of what the b’nai mitzvah will be like and don’t check in with the students to determine progress can be problematic. The tutor might assign a large workload and make derogatory comments if your student doesn’t measure up to his or her expectations.

Bernhardt suggests using word of mouth to help narrow the list of available tutors. In addition to tutors available through your synagogue, find out whom your friends and family members have used. Their experience can help guide you to building a level of trust that will make you feel comfortable with a particular candidate.

Give yourself enough time to seek out the winning candidate. Finding your golden tutor may take a few attempts, and it’s wise to start searching even before you set a date or book a venue.

Also, be sure to include your child, the student, in the final stages of the decision-making process. The only way to really gauge compatibility will be to see how your child and the tutor interact.

A tutor will be a major influence in your child’s religious future, development and overall b’nai mitzvah success. In addition to their role as a teacher, a tutor can also be a mentor and a friend, so it’s important to ensure the match is one that will still be strong once the party is over and the thank-you cards have been mailed out.