Hello fellow students of Jewish history:
I am proud to tell you that I was recently nominated for a prestigious Covenant Award, in recognition of my work teaching Jewish history on the internet. I just learned, however, that the office has not yet received sufficient Letters of Support necessary to consider my candidacy–and the due date is tomorrow at 5 pm! (Thursday, December 13).
So here’s where you can help–if you have found these classes worthwhile, would you consider writing a letter of support and sending it to me directly at email@example.com? I will assemble them into one document and submit them to the Covenant Foundation for their consideration. The earlier the better.
I’ve never crowd-sourced letters of recommendation before, but in truth, it has a certain poetic irony to it–after all, the whole point of my efforts are to spread interest in Jewish history world wide, so asking the Web audience for support is completely consistent.
I’m attaching the two essays I had to write for the award, a Statement of Motivation and a Statement of Purpose.
If you have the time to spare for this letter, I would really appreciate it.
Statement of Motivation
I grew up as the only Jewish child in Ansonville, a tiny settlement in northern Ontario located about 175 miles below the southernmost range of polar bears. (My grandfather was part of a clutch of Lithuanian Jews who fled Russia in 1904 to set up small businesses in the Canadian north. The community peaked in the 1940s; by the time I was born the only Jews left were my parents and an elderly second cousin in nearby Montrock.) My earliest experiences with Jewish education involved the weekly drive south to Timmins, where a peripatetic melamed taught a Hebrew class for the Jewish children scattered throughout the northern communities. I don’t remember much from those interminably long Sunday mornings, except for one thing: I was inspired by Jewish history right from the get-go.
I remember attending a matinee performance of The Ten Commandments at the Cinequois Theatre, watching transfixed as Charleston Heston as Moses went toe-to-toe with Yul Brynner’s Pharaoh. I remember sitting at my mother’s pink formica kitchen table and lovingly curating my scrapbook of Jewish history photographs cut from the Canadian Jewish News (on amud alef, a page dedicated to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, on its verso photographs and maps of the Six-Day War). I remember summer afternoons, fishing in the Abitibi River while daydreaming about Jewish history, and marveling at the incredible resilience of my people, my history—and I always wondered what part I would play in our collective destiny.
When I turned ten, my parents arranged for me to live briefly in Toronto and train for my Bar Mitzvah. The expense and difficulty was not a simple matter for them, and in recognition of their sacrifice I dutifully attended Eitz Chaim Yeshivah every afternoon after public school, coping with the introductory Hebrew curriculum but showing special interest when my gifted and passionate Jewish educators related historical stories from the midrash. After my Bar Mitzvah, I returned home to learn a much more consequential lesson in Jewish identity: the inevitability of antisemitism.
I had expected to pick up where I left off with my childhood playmates. Instead I was greeted with snarls of “dirty Jew” or the more colorful French term maudit Juif: “cursed Jew.” I struggled with their stark transformation, both intellectually and on a physical level in the form of regular fist fights. The experience scarred me. When I eventually returned south to attend the University of Toronto, I was fortunate to find intellectual solace in the thought of the late Professor Emil Fackenheim, a scholar whose research on the metaphysical significance of Jewish history influenced me deeply. I was proud to be among his youngest protégés and followed him briefly to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
After earning my degree in Philosophy, I immediately found gainful employment as a ski instructor. Not especially rewarding from a Jewish perspective, but Providence wasn’t ignoring me—it was on the slopes that I met my wife, also an instructor. Her connection to Judaism was even more attenuated than mine; yet, as our relationship progressed, she quickly outpaced me. Since then our life together has been a whirlwind, an adventure, and we have dedicated ourselves completely to advancing our knowledge of and commitment to Judaism.
My wife went on to study Jewish Communal Social Work as a Federation Executive Recruitment Education scholar at Yeshiva University and Jewish thought at Neve Yerushalayim Seminary, and I returned to pursue simultaneous graduate study in Jewish history at various Universities and Talmudic training at several campuses of Yeshivat Ohr Somayach. Chasing Jewish education, we moved ten times in the first seven years of our marriage (four countries on three continents). Somehow we managed to keep it all together while raising six kids.
Over the course of teaching Jewish history to adult students for the last thirty years I have accumulated many formative experiences. Given the restrictions of space, however, I will share only one.
In 1991 I returned to Ukraine to conduct archival research for my dissertation in Jewish history. It was my second trip there—on the first, two years earlier, I was summarily denied access to the secret Communist Party archives. With the spirit of glasnost’ that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union, my Ukrainian colleagues hastily arranged for another invitation, correctly fearing that the window of opportunity would shortly close as the country descended into political chaos and potential war with Russia.
When my flight landed in Kiev I learned that my contacts had all fled the unrest in the city. I had a little Canadian cash and plenty of food (my wife packed me a huge trunk of kosher staples) but nowhere to spend the night. As the sun set, and surrounded by suspicious characters representing the resurgent post-Soviet mafia, I heaved the trunk into a taxi and sought out the Antonovsky family. I had met them only once before, when I delivered some insulin on behalf of the Canadian Jewish Federation, but they graciously took me in. I spent several months sleeping on their sofa and later arranged to have my housing stipend directed to them, a financial windfall that came just as the local currency collapsed.
Every night, following our dinner of local fare and imported delicacies from the trunk, we would discuss Jewish history. I learned from them that there was a qualitative difference in terms of how we related to the topic. For me, it was a deeply satisfying intellectual pursuit, meaningful and life-affirming. For the Antonovskys, Jewish history was their very existence. My artless descriptions of Jewish history frequently brought them to bitter tears or shouts of exultation as they learned of events that had long been suppressed by the Soviet regime. In short: Jewish History mattered! My destiny became clear: I decided to spend my life in service to my people as a teacher of Jewish history.
Statement of Purpose
We have all heard the directive issued by the Federal Aviation Administration: in the case of cabin depressurization, passengers must put on their own oxygen masks before attempting to help others. This truism, however counterintuitive, is obvious to anyone who flies with children: we are no help to our kids if we pass out from oxygen deprivation before they get their masks on.
Maimonides offers an identical teaching in the context of Jewish education. He writes, “if a person is to learn Torah, and has a child who is to learn Torah—the parent comes before the child.” We are no help to our children, the next link in the chain of Jewish civilization, if we don’t take care of our own Jewish education first. Yet how may we achieve this essential goal, when the oxygen is rushing out of the fuselage and the plane is careening toward the ocean?
In 2008 I was introduced to the thought of Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University who specializes in the social implications of the Internet. He challenged me to rethink what I had been doing with Adult Jewish Education—and come up with something optimized for millennial and post-millennial Jews. Around the same time I read Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ A Letter in the Scroll (2004) and was deeply moved by this passage:
Imagine that, while browsing in the library, you come across one book unlike the rest, which catches your eye because on its spine is written the name of your family. Intrigued, you open it and see many pages written by different hands in many languages. You start reading it, and gradually you begin to understand what it is. It is the story each generation of your ancestors has told for the sake of the next, so that everyone born into this family can learn where they came from, what happened to them, what they lived for and why. As you turn the pages, you reach the last, which carries no entry but a heading. It bears your name.
I resolved to take my passion for Jewish history and build an online classroom optimized for digital natives (i.e. anyone born after 1985). The idea was to create a living library in the mobile phone of every Jew world-wide, where one could wander the stacks and discover the volumes with their own names on the spines. I began experimenting by uploading my weekly classes at a local synagogue to YouTube—to my surprise and delight, the lectures rapidly found a wide and diverse audience. Over 500 lectures later, and using several social media platforms, I am still amazed by the statistics. Here’s an annotated screenshot, for example, of the YouTube analytics:
I made a lot of mistakes, especially at first. The medium of teaching online is radically different than teaching in-person—it’s not enough to simply tape a lecture and throw it online. Students learn from the whole environment—punctuations of a chuckle or a yawn from the back of the room, physical movement as the instructor walks from side to side, variations in volume and pitch and the like are impossible to capture on a two-dimensional screen. Students in a classroom expect a few moments of good and welfare announcements to get ready for the lecture, students online expect it to begin immediately. All these lessons had to be learned (and many more that I am still working on). Nevertheless, the statistics suggest that the improvements are taking effect.
Like anything, Jewish history can be poorly taught, and the advantages described above may be squandered by an insensitive or ill-informed instructor. I try to base my own teaching on a credo, outlined in a video Manifesto I developed early on in this process.
– The study of Jewish history has meaning and value for human existence in general, for both Jews and non-Jews
– Academic Jewish history lectures need not sacrifice content to be entertaining
– Access to high-quality information on Jewish history should be free
– Shared intellectual curiosity about Jewish history is a great way to build communities
– Jewish history of one of many paths to the study of Torah, and that Torah study is enhanced by a fuller understanding of Jewish history
The project is still in medias res as I experiment with other modalities of online education, but I am pleased that so many other people have joined me in this global conversation about Jewish history. I take special pleasure, however, when I get an email from a middle-school teacher who says she used my lectures to prepare her classes, or from the adult education coordinator of a temple who organizes a weekly watch party for her congregants. That’s when I know that everyone has their oxygen masks properly in place.
Should my application be accepted, this prestigious award would allow me to improve the technical quality of the lectures, for example by hiring students to operate a second camera and edit the final product, giving online viewers a richer experience of the lectures. I’d also like to develop a stand-alone app that directs students to further resources. I’d also like to experiment with ways to bring more online viewers into bricks-and-mortar settings, perhaps by teleconferencing into classrooms into Jewish schools or congregations, or developing printed materials for study groups.
I am grateful to the consideration of the Awards Committee as you reviewing my materials. Knowing that the Covenant Foundation cares about what we do is a huge encouragement to all of us.
to whomever this may concern, i was always looking for online history classes, where i can gain knowledge of my nations history, i never found the right one, until i found rabbi henry abramson, his classes were amazingly done and with a lot of information, i am sure that many people not just me gained from these classes, i am deeply indebted to rabbi henry abramson for doing his classes consistently on a weekly basis!!! i support the nomination of rabbi henry abramson for the prestigious Covenant Award. levi cohen
As a follow-up to my letter of recommendation:
Here is one actual Mormon patriarchal blessing I thought you might find of interest, informing the person (a male in this instance) which Jewish tribe they were “born from,” which was posted today on the board I moderate (www.exmormon.org). I bolded the section which cites this revelation of Jewish tribe (a revelation from one of the ruling prophets in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or whatever they are calling it; as of very recently, there has been some kind of confused, but official, “name change” for the Mormon church from the topmost level of Mormon leadership/ownership which no one seems to quite understand):
Re: Submit your Patriarchal Blessing for analysis
Robert Kerby Hodson, in the name of Jesus Christ and with the authority of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood, and with the authority of the calling of Stake Patriarch, I place my hands upon your head and give you a patriarchal blessing. The Lord knows of your desire for this blessing. He knows of the preparation you have made in your heart and soul to desire this blessing. He knows of the great spirit which you are and of the great accomplishments you will fulfill and achieve as you live knows here of on the this great earth mission and strive you to accepted. serve Him. He knows of the great challenges which you will yet face as you go through life here on this earth. But He also knows of the choice blessings and talents you have been blessed with which will permit you to achieve even the greatest goals which you might set before you. And He knows of the lives of others with whom you will work and associate who will be affected for good because of that life which you will live and the achievements which you will make. I pray that our Heavenly Father’s spirit will be here this day, that I will feel the inspiration I desire to say those things which He would have me say and that you will feel this inspiration and love and warmth and know in your heart and soul that our Heavenly Father is here in spirit and that the Holy Ghost is controlling that which is said. Honor this blessing because of this understanding and enjoy the rekindling of this know feeling that you this have in just your heart at this of time each time you read this and lean to prayer above all to is keep a another communication means open Lord might receive inspiration and guidance in answer to your prayers. For you will be so inspired many times and you will know of this inspiration and be of able to testify to many will hear closeness of your Heavenly Father and of the thinness of the veil who which separates of us the from them. You are of the lineage of the tribe of Ephraim. And through this lineage, you have been given responsibilities which you will fulfill as you serve your Heavenly Father here. You will have the opportunity because of callings given unto you of serving in lands distant from this proclaiming the Gospel and giving your aid and assistance in earth building the church and helping to prepare this great church and to prepare this for the return of our Savior. You have a sensitive spirit which feels the needs of .others about you. And through this great empathy which you have you will be able to work closely with others and be a source of advice and counsel and you will be able to sit in positions of judgment wherein through your and your desire, you will be able to work with many who need the help of an love inspired person. Rejoice in the fact that you have been given much. Use your talents to bless others and great will be the joy which you will receive in your heart and soul. Listen for the whisperings of the Holy Ghost and let them guide your steps in this life that you might choose those paths which will carry you toward eternal life and that you might receive wisdom and knowledge to thwart any attempts of Satan to lead you astray. Enlarge on the blessings you have. Increase your talents through use and through here learning knowledge that that you might have be a something choice to give servant to others on this which earth they and can go enjoy forth as with they the receive of it. Honor your sweet parents with all that you do and say. Great will be the joy No. 1071 which will be yours as you so do in the knowledge that you will be able to leave before your loved ones as a father and a homemaker and a patriarch, that choice image for your loved ones to follow. Now these are special blessings on a special, sweet spirit, a special son of God. Read them and enjoy them and strive to serve Him who has given all that is good and worthy in this life. As you do, as you strive to serve Him and your fellow man, will opportunities open before you and will challenges lie before you which will allow you to increase and to grow strong and to go forth and enjoy that which you do. Now these are special blessings and I seal there them upon enjoy you. those · I seal things you to which come forth in the morning of the first resurrection, to will transpire say at that time. And I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
[End of patriarchal blessing.]
Each patriarchal blessing is SUPPOSED to be for that person only, but exmormons (in particular) know that most of the patriarchal blessings are composed mostly of boilerplate, the individual paragraphs, and the information within them, modified depending on the gender of the person receiving the blessing, and also as a result of things such as their Mormon “status” (if that person is “Mormon Royalty,” for example—a member of the most important Mormon families—they get “better” blessings because they will, in fact, have much better options in life…including, perhaps, being part of the topmost Mormon hierarchy, and (for a very few) perhaps, in the far future, becoming the sole owner of the entire Latter Day Saints corporation, which currently is generally valued, by the financially savvy at RfM, at in excess of $80 billion US—this includes all of the profit-making businesses such as City Creek Mall, the working ranches which are extensive, the housing developments, and the tremendous real estate holdings worldwide. The blessings can be (and frequently are) modified to put pressure on the person if they are wavering in some way: they are asking too many questions; women who want to go to college rather than immediately get married and have many children as quickly as is possible; people who are dealing with their own sexual orientations which are not approved by Mormonism, etc.
The Jewish tribe which is “revealed” as the recipient’s own tribe (they are told they have been a member of this tribe since before they were born) can be any of the Jewish tribes which existed in ancient times. Ephraim is the tribe most often cited (by percentage; it is the default assignment), but converts to Mormonism (and persons of color—there is an active, historical, outreach to Native Americans in particular), plus the “Mormon royalty” young adults, are usually attributed to other Jewish tribes. (I can’t remember the details.)
Thank you again for the lecture on Paul of Tarsus. It was EXACTLY what someone on the board needed to answer a question which was very important to them and they were extremely appreciative for the facts you cited. On behalf of “angela” on the board: Thank you!
And again: I am a Jew (by choice; of over thirty years now), I have never been Mormon, nor had anything to do with Mormonism (or exmormonism, either) until I landed there as the result of a Google search I made, for a fact I needed for a MOW (Movie of the Week; film made for television) which was in pre-production over fifteen years ago. On RfM, I found a group of people who were [in large part] markedly intelligent, extremely thoughtful, and questing…and the conversation available there was much better than any Mensa meeting I have ever gone to. I have been a moderator there for going on five years now (I think!).
Thank you for your tremendous contributions not only to the Jewish community worldwide, but also (inadvertently, I realize) to the worldwide reduction of anti-Semitism. In certain circles (such as exmormonism, and to a lesser extent: still active and believing Mormons, who are a part of our worldwide readership) you have “done” far more than you will likely ever realize when it comes to some very much needed tikkun olam on behalf of the Jewish people and Jewish culture.
My best wishes, and my many thanks, go out to you,
Sent from Mail for Windows 10
Sorry, I just saw this now – gmail put it in Promotions tab – did you get the award?