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Big Think Interview With Niles Goldstein
Niles is the author or editor of nine books, including the award-winning Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith, and his writing has appeared in many publications, including Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The Forward, and Moment. He has been featured and interviewed in Time, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Jerusalem Report, The New York Observer, New York Magazine, The Jewish Week, and Beliefnet, as well as on domestic and international television and radio.
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: What’s been really interesting for me in my 15 years of practice in the martial arts and my 15 years of being a Rabbi is the incredible number of similarities. I guess if you wanted to look at some of the core similarities, one would be the obvious, discipline and commitment. You know, in religious language we sometimes talk about devotion, but you can be devoted to other things as well. So, for me, I’ve been devoted to the martial arts and Karate specifically for pretty much the same time that I’ve been ordained. I would say that repetition is incredibly important in both, whether it’s organized religion and ritual, or it is in training, martial arts training.
I would say a more abstract idea that I think is probably is the most important is the idea of openness. The idea that paradoxically, the more open you become, which can sometimes make us feel uncomfortable, the more powerful you become. And it’s something that takes a long time to master in the martial arts, but I think as we go along in the human journey, it has great application as well. And I know from personal experience, as well as from preaching from the pulpit, that sometimes when you become most vulnerable, you paradoxically also reach your fullest potential.
On one level I’m talking about humility. A kind of openness, meaning you become an empty vessel and realize that there is a tremendous amount that you have to learn. So, it takes a while before you get your black belt, and so humility is just a kind of openness to, or receptivity to the wisdom of your instructors, or your teachers. But also there’s certain techniques in the martial arts that I can’t really demonstrate on a website where openness plays a key role. In essence where you almost use your adversary’s strength against him, or her. Aikido and Jujitsu probably are two of the martial arts that follow that principle the best.
Question: What are some qualities of a spiritual warrior?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: Well, I think a lot of us think we know what a warrior is; a fighter, a soldier, someone who engages in combat. But a spiritual warrior, I just spoke recently at a military installation about my book and about how spirituality can actually be very much tied up in the notion of being a warrior. A spiritual warrior is someone who is able to do battle not just with forces outside of him or herself, but also with those things within us that can hold us back from achieving our greatest capacities and potentials. So, whether it means fighting our inner demons, whether it means grappling with those forces that are holding us back from evolving, or whether it is dealing with something in life that we really are having a hard time getting through, that’s where I think the spirit comes into play and that’s where I think we can become spiritual warriors.
I think also, when we develop some of those capacities of being a spiritual warrior, it allows us to deal with the sad but inevitable challenges that every human being has to face in life, almost every person. Whether it be the loss of a parent, or going through a breakup or divorce, losing a job. There are many and varied obstacles that we all have to face in life. And I think a spiritual warrior gets more arrows for the quiver, so to speak, in order to better handle those challenges.
Question: How has the lower Manhattan Jewish community changed since 9/11?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I think all of lower Manhattan has changed dramatically since 9/11, but specifically the Jewish community of lower Manhattan which is the community that I’ve served for over a decade now, has changed in that more and more communities have popped up. More and more Jewish men and women, I think if you dig more deeply, are yearning for something more. Maybe 9/11 triggered it, maybe other things triggered it, but I think A) there has simply been a lot of growth in terms of Jewish organizations and synagogues since 9/11. Really over the last decade, but I think they’ve also changed in that many of these communities are very different than traditional, established congregations or institutions that have been around for a long time. They tend to be a little more willing to think out-of-the-box, they tend to be less centralized and hierarchical, they tend to be much more egalitarian and consensus-based, and they tend to really be focused on meeting people where they are, whether it’s in terms of garb, or in terms of beliefs. So, it’s pretty interesting. You know, the one major area of concern that I have is that sometimes they also involve a kind of watering down of the religion that to me, as a Rabbi, is unfortunate and unnecessary.
I think by watering down the religion in order to make it more accessible to people, and I think there’s nothing wrong with making religion, and Judaism in particular, accessible to people. We want that. I want that. I try to do that, but I think sometimes it becomes a slippery slope between making something accessible, meeting people where they are, and pandering; pandering to people.
Sometimes you’ll see programs and approaches to worship that, in my view at least, seem to be pandering and really trying to reach the lowest common denominator and offering a kind of Judaism-light. And that I think doesn’t really serve anybody well.
In my mind, Judaism is there really as a way to help us transform ourselves. And as a Catholic colleague of mine in the FBI once said about our job as clerics, but I think the same thing applies to faith. I think the task of any good religion or religion when utilized in its best way is meant to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. And I think a lot of us become too complacent. And that's when religion, like for me the martial arts can come in and really challenge us to become better than who we are. And I think that's a key value to religion that is sometimes overlooked.
Question: What are the problems facing the Jewish community today?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I think some of the challenges facing the Jewish community today are similar to those facing many faith communities today because of the recession. I think there are very serious and sometimes dire financial challenges. One of the ways that I think that is most problematic is that so many of the foundations of organizations that historically has funded more innovative projects and more out-of-the-box interesting initiatives are now, because they have lost so much money, being forced to basically prop up organizations and institutions that I think should have gone away a long time ago. So there are a lot of innovative ideas out there and a lot of projects that are simply not getting off the ground because there is no money to fund them. And I think that's a real problem. So that would be one thing that comes to mind.
Question: How can we get away from that redundancy and lack of innovation?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I think that we just have to keep love alive. Who did that as part of his campaign? Al Sharpton? Keep love alive. I think we just have to keep on our toes. You know we have to stay vigilant and again this is a concept that is applicable to the martial arts too. We have to always be conscious and aware that whenever we feel complacent and relaxed there is inevitably going to be a challenge around the corner that we don't see. So complacency is something that I think is a very dangerous thing. We always ought to be striving to be better; we always ought to be working hard to improve what we have because there's always room for growth.
Kafka, one of my favorite authors, says that slothfulness, laziness, is the cardinal sin of the human condition because from that sin all others emanate. And I've never forgotten that teaching. He writes about that in one of his journals and I think it's a real -- he's hitting on something very profound that when we become lazy, when we become complacent, when we rest on our laurels, whether we've won a Nobel Prize for established a new congregation that is when we are at our most risk for not evolving, but devolving.
Question: What does it mean to be a Jew in New York today?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I think to be a Jew in New York today is to realize that we had been blessed with so many options out there, there are so many different kinds of congregations, some many different kinds of organizations, almost all of the national Jewish organizations have their headquarters here in New York. So in some ways that is a real blessing. You have everything from the most extreme right-wing orthodoxy to the most extreme left-wing secular humanist communities.
I think that's also the curse of being Jewish in New York City. There are so many options and flavors that it can be overwhelming. I happen to think that's one of the blessings and curses of New York City in general, whether it's going to the theater or film or museums, there is just so much you can't possibly do it all. It's almost like Martin Seligman's experiment of learned helplessness where dogs in a laboratory, no matter what they did, were hit with an electric shock and eventually they just stopped moving at all. I think we're so bombarded by stimuli in New York whether it's in the arts world or in the world of religion that it can be so overwhelming that you don't do anything. And so I know a lot of Jews in New York who don't belong anywhere because it's just so overwhelming and they just say, well I don't need it. It's always there if I needed. And then in the end they never take advantage of it.
So I think it's a mixed bag, it's a mixed blessing I think in New York; lots of options, which is great, but so many options that it can sometimes be paralyzing for some people.
Question: What is the New Shul and how is it different from traditional synagogues?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: The New Shul started in 1999, and as the founding rabbi, I along with many of our founding families who are still with us looked around Manhattan and just thought that there really wasn't a synagogue out there for them that they wanted to belong to and for me that I wanted to be that really spoke to our needs, which may sound surprising in a place where there's as many Jewish residents as New York City, but there really wasn't anything out there that we felt was the right fit for either of us.
And I think what makes this interesting and maybe a little unique is, A) we have tried to follow the mantra of a great Hasidic mystic, Nahman of Bratslav, who says, "I come to show you in a way that is ancient." So if you think about the word radical the real meaning of the word radical means a return to the roots, etymologically. So what we've really tried to do over last decade or so with the New Shul is create this hybrid community where on one level some of what we do is very out-of-the-box and very edgy, particularly holiday events which sometimes feel more like gorilla fever because we take them to the streets often than a conventional synagogue experience. But other times you come and it feels like a warm, very informal, but kind of traditional experience. And so we've really tried to blend the old with the new, the innovative with the historic in the inherited. So that's "A".
I think, B) is we are not afraid of taking risks and that includes taking risks of failure. And I think too many spiritual communities are afraid of taking risks. And that's the mark of cowardice, not wisdom. I think like an entrepreneur. Most of the ones I've spoken to have failed 10 times before they get that one great success and I would say in terms of religious ritual or holiday events or any other aspect of religious life we have had great successes over the years and we've also had flocks. And I think that that's fine. So I think that's another important thing that defines the New Shul is that we're willing to take chances, and too few communities are willing to go there.
Question: What are some lessons you’ve learned along the way at the New Shul?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: Because so many of our members come from the arts community, and that's changed little bit. Greenwich Village is where we draw our core membership, but since 9/11 Greenwich Village has changed a lot too. So it still attracts a certain kind person with a very creative sensibility, but it’s certainly not in the same place as it was in the 20s and 30s were 50s when people like Jackson Pollock were running around. So I think that one of the things we've realized is that it's very hard to put on a kind of -- and many of our members are in the theater community-- religious ritual that feels like a production and yet also feels religiously authentic. It's very tricky. And unless you have professionals who are doing it, it sometimes cannot be as effective as it might be. So I would say in the area of holidays which is where we were tend to be more theatrical is a lot of overlap between theater and religion and I think a lot of theater has its roots in religion. All you have to do is look back in ancient Greek theater and much of it; most of it is drawn from religious rituals. To see that this crossover is very old and very strong, but for example, in Chanukah, we have created over the years this kind of abstract light sculpture instead of a traditional Chanukah menorah and have gone To Washington Square Park and interwoven traditional and contemporary music and liturgy and poetry and it's been a real success for us. But again, when you try to do more full-blown kinds of religious rituals in theatrical ways you have to strike that right balance between authenticity and the kind of theatricality that I think is not just shtick but something that makes the experience multi-sensory and really powerful for people. And that's hard when you're dealing with volunteers and laypeople who are trained in this area.
Question: How is being a rabbi at the New Shul different from your previous experiences?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: Well I don't want to get into trouble here. You know, I served a couple of years at a very large suburban congregation as the assistant rabbi and it was a very, very different experience than being the founding rabbi of the New Shul partly because I've been able to basically do whatever he wanted as the founding rabbi of a brand-new community, of course in partnership with my leadership, my lay leadership. So even that's just a very surface difference but it's a very important one and I feel like the shackles were removed from me and I could be free to be the kind of rabbi I wanted to be and help create the kind of community that we all wanted.
I think when I was working as an assistant rabbi at a large suburban synagogue, I went into work with a jacket and tie every day, which is not who I am, but I felt that that was the culture of that community and I had to do that. I was very first rabbi in that particular community to wear a kippah, a skullcap. And I don't wear one on the street just like now, but I always wear one for worship services. And I had to actually fight to have this done because that wasn't part of their culture, I came from a very classical kind of reformed Judaism that really shunned a lot of ritual.
Since then, there has been a much more renewed openness to ritual in the reform movement within Judaism. But at the New Shul I am free to do whatever I want and so I have in some ways been more informal and contemporary and I lead services and have led ritual and holiday events in jeans or in flannel shirts and sneakers, if that's what makes me comfortable; partly because that's who I am and partly because that's what makes other people more comfortable and that's what I want. On the other hand, I've worn very traditional garments that more liberal rabbis liked me almost everywhere. For example, during the days of Awe, I always wear a sort of a funky version of a kittel; it’s this white garment that to this day is worn almost exclusively by Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox men. And it's an outward expression of purity and openness, the idea of during the 10 days of repentance, we literally, well not literally, we figuratively and metaphorically stand naked and exposed before God. And as I write in the “Challenge and the Soul,” to me, whenever I put on that kittel during the days of awe it reminds me exactly of putting on the white Gi that I put on whenever I step onto the wooden floor of the dojo to engage in martial arts training. So the parallels there are pretty striking as well. The garment looks virtually identical except in martial arts training have put on a black belt in with my congregation the belt is white.
Question: Why do you support interfaith marriages?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: We have made a point over the years to create a fanutial, a sanctuary in the truest sense of the word. A safe haven where people feel they can be who they are. So we have, like many congregations around the country a lot of interfaith households. And I make it a point of making the non-Jewish partners in those households feel absolutely welcome. Some of those people ultimately decide to convert and many of the conversions I've officiated over during the course of the last decade or so have involved people who just simply have said to me this is the first time I've been rabbi who is actually reaching out in a proactive way. And so, hey, it's almost like proselytizing. Have you considered becoming a Jew? If they don't that's okay, but if they do I think that’s a wonderful thing.
You know, of course I want them to establish Jewish households- that's my agenda as a rabbi. But if one of the partners in that marriage or relationship is not, I still want them to feel that they have a place and that they're comfortable. And just to give you a concrete example, during the high holy days over the years, one of the sermons that we offer is always given by a member of the community and I usually pick someone who had been particularly active in the year preceding that season as a way of honoring them. And a couple of years ago I picked a non-Jew just because I thought she was so amazing in terms of the time and effort that she put into our community. And it was an amazing experience for her; she gave a great sermon it also made a statement to the community about how inclusive we were. And now lo and behold she is now in the middle of her conversion training area is 10 years into her -- or 12 years into her marriage. And I think without that invitation she may never have decided to do that.
Question: Do people ever call the New Shul watered down?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I've never really gotten criticism from colleagues to my face that the Judaism we offer is a watered-down form, but that is something that I always have to be vigilant about, it's something that I always have to talk to my lay leadership about. Do I think we've done events, or programs that have been watered down? I think we have. I don't think it was deliberate. Do I think that we've had some events where we have focused too much on trying to get people into the door rather than on content? Probably. But again, it's because we’ve been working hard at trying to achieve that balance between authenticity and accessibility, between a serious nod to tradition as well as an openness to experimentation, so we re inevitably going to make mistakes along the way. But I haven't really been criticized for that because as an author who's lectured in spoken and talked quite a bit around the country and Jewish community, I think people realize that I'm very serious about what I do and about my love for Judaism. So I think we're viewed in a good way.
Question: When did you decide that you wanted to become a rabbi?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I really did have a kind of ah-ha moment. In one million years I would've never, ever thought I would become a rabbi. I grew up in Chicago in a home they had a very strong sense of Jewish identity. It was a kosher home because both of my parents grew up that way. We always had Friday night dinner together but we were big synagogue goers, we belong to a Reconstructionist Indian reformed synagogue so we would never Orthodox, we were always liberal in our approach. So while being proud as a Jew I never really thought in a million years I would become a rabbi.
And senior year in college I had three applications on my desk, one was to go to on for an MFA at the Iowa’s Writers Workshop, the other was for the Peace Corps, and the third was to go on to do a PhD in philosophy, which was my undergraduate degree. So of course I did none of the three, I moved to Cambridge and wrote the Great American novel, which thank God never got published because it was so awful. And it was really during that year when I was living in Cambridge that I read the Bible for the first time in its entirety; I experimented with different kinds of congregations in the Boston area from orthodoxy to secular humanist to try to figure out which was the best fit. I met with rabbis but probably more important than all of that was that two very close friends of mine were living in Cambridge at the same time. One who was in do and had just begun his PhD program in Harvard and the other who was a Jesuit priests, or was training to become a Jesuit priest. He is in Rome now who is studying at the Westin School of theology. So it sounds like a joke, but at night the three of us would get together; a Hindu, a Catholic, and a Jew, you know with a single malt scotch and talk about theology and metaphysics until three in the morning. And it was really during those conversations, forget about the Jewish stuff, and I really realize how much I enjoyed doing this on a very deep level more than anything else. And I didn't really think about the real world life of a congregational rabbi, I didn't really think about the practical ramifications of the decision, but it was really when my priest friend said to me, "Niles, have you ever considered being a rabbi?" But I said, “Well no." And I'd say two weeks later I was already looking at applications for rabbinical schools. So it kind of came out of nowhere and bit me on the butt, but I never really expected it or wanted it because I didn't think I was worthy of it.
Of course now, all of these years later, I realize it's not about worth. We're all flawed and imperfect. It's about commitment and devotion and that's what I needed to have someone help me reveal. Something that was within myself that I wasn't aware of.
Question: What’s the most difficult part of being a rabbi?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: The hardest part about being rabbi is dealing with Jews all the time. But I had a professor -- the Bible calls us the stiff-necked people. Jewish Americans are very smart, very talented, very successful in the main, we have a lot of impact disproportionate to our size and that's a good thing. I'm proud of that. But we can also be a little pushy; they can also be very demanding especially here in New York. I'm a Midwesterner after all. Some of the stereotypes do have some truth to them. But as a professor said to me, "Niles," because I was having some of these issues even in graduate school, he said to me, “Becoming a rabbi doesn't mean you have to like the Jewish people, it just means you have to love them." And I've never forgotten that teaching either. It's like family. Do I like my brother or sister every day of the week? No. But do I love them in a fundamental way all the time? Well, I guess I do. And so I would say that's one of the challenges. The Jewish people are a very tough people, sometimes it feels like herding cats trying to be a rabbi and get my people as excited about their tradition as I am excited about it and inspired by and transformed by it, but when I returned that teaching and I say, you know what? It's not always about liking them but it's about loving them it helps me get through this tough moments. Of course, I have many other moments where I'm filled with warmth and love the people I serve. Sometimes that can be a challenge.
Question: What do you say to the stereotype that Jews only going to temple on the high holidays?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: As with all stereotypes, I think there are kernels of truth. I think that the stereotype that so many Jews only go to services during the high holidays is sadly true. There are plenty of Christians who only show up, according to my minister or priest friends, on Easter and Christmas. So I think this is a challenge for religious leaders across the board. All I can really do is try to excite and inspire Jewish men and women to see how much power there is in their faith, not just as a two times a year experience but really something that is ongoing, that will help them evolve and grow and will transform and enrich and challenge throughout the course of their lives. And we're not going to do that by beating up on people through sermons, we're not going to do that by getting defensive and reactionary about anti-Semitism, about intermarriage, about assimilation, that's with the previous generation of Jewish leaders did, and it completely backfired.
What we need to do is excite people by demonstrating through our own work and our own enthusiasm just how beautiful a religion Judaism is them being proactive and not reactive, by being assertive not by being defensive. And I think if we do that we're going to show by example this is really an amazing fit in more and more people will come. And more and more people have come, and that's a good thing. So while the stereotype I think is still around, there are a lot of pockets in New York and San Francisco and Boston and Minneapolis and a lot of cities all over this country who are really vibrant and robust Jewish communities are really thriving and coming out the woodwork in ways that even 20 or 30 years ago they just weren't. And that makes me, as a younger rabbi, very hopeful. I think a lot has happened just in the last 15 or 20 years that has made me much more hopeful than when I was in graduate school.
Question: What is the story behind Passover?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: A quick summary of Passover for me would be, as I’ve been talking about with other rituals to go back to his radical core, to go back to its roots. So I could talk about the Seder and different ritual objects that are on the Seder plate. I could talk about the Haggadah; the book that we read that recounts the story of Exodus. I could talk about the matzoh that we eat for a week because by eating unleavened bread we remember the wandering of our ancestors in the wilderness. And that's all well and good, but for me the core, the real revolutionary idea of Passover is what I would rather talk about because I'm more excited about it and I talk about it at length in one of my more recent books which came out in paperback, “Gonzo Judaism.” So for me, it's about reclaiming in recapturing that gonzo attitude.
So look at the story for a second. Here you have a band of newly freed slaves. That's what this story is about. They are wandering through the desert with virtually nothing surrounded by three regional superpowers; to the south, the Egyptians that they just left, to the north the Assyrians, and to the northeast the Babylonians. Three regional superpowers who could probably defeat them in a heartbeat. And here is this brand of newly freed, this ragtag band of newly freed slaves has the audacity, the courage, the guts, to say to these three cultures, these three superpowers that you are wrong. That you are wrong to God down and treat as gods these statues made of stones and sticks; these idols. And to have that kind of courage and guts to be able to introduce monotheism to a world that was still practicing idolatry to meet is what Passover is ultimately all about. That is what makes it radical that is what makes it countercultural that is what makes the revolutionary. And to me one of the great misfortunes and mistakes that we've made in the last couple of generations of students is that when we go through the motions of a Passover Seder, and it can be really warm and wonderful and you know your family is there, we don't highlight that radical, revolutionary idea that is at the heart and soul of what this whole experience is about. And even today, I don't think people are talking about it, but I get very animated and excited when I really think about what Passover is about and how radical an audacious and that it really is. Because that's what Judaism is ultimately about. And I think it's many other examples of stories from the Bible where my ancestors acted in ways that were countercultural, revolutionary, and radical. And that's a message that is not being preached from our pulpits and is not being conveyed to our people. And unless it is, or unless it starts getting conveyed people are just going to not embrace Judaism in a way that I think they otherwise would.
Question: What does the New Shul do to celebrate Passover?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: Passover is one of those holidays I don't really want to mess with that much to be honest. I think that Passover is and ought to be a real home-based kind of that. Now, do I think we need to reclaim and capture its revolutionary ideas; it's countercultural and radical notions? Absolutely. That's where I think we’ve fallen short. But I think that holiday, perhaps more than any other, is most effective and powerful when done in the home.
Now A lot of communities have a second Seder and invited people and a lot of people who are single and may not have homes to go to and so we do need to provide for them and we do always make sure that no one is left alone and that everybody has a place go to observe a Seder. But I have always felt over the years that of all the holidays to play with and have fun with and experiment with, Passover was the one that I was least excited about messing with because I thought its greatest power was exactly rooted in its appeal as a home-based holiday.
And I think too few people see the home as the seat of their religion. They see their religion as something out there. You know they drop their kids off at Hebrew school, or they show up a couple times a year to pray and when they go home with nothing. There's no Jewish art, there’s Jewish ritual, bears no Jewish talk at the dinner table. They might talk about politics or economics or literature. But how often we talk about religion? In most contemporary Jewish households I don't think very often. Passover gives us an opportunity. It may be ritualized discussion, but as many of us know, those discussions often digress into very interesting areas. So I would be a little reticent to take that away. I think it's really powerful.
Question: What’s your favorite way to eat matzo?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: My favorite way to eat matzoh is to eat it on the first night and then to avoid it in any way I possibly can. So I would say while the best way to eat matzoh for me is to eat it in all of its ritual places, but then during the week as little as possible because as I've learned more about Judaism over the years, I've essentially adopted this Sephardic approach to Passover mainly because of the experience I had over Passover in Istanbul when I spent Passover in Turkey. And I followed this Sephardic custom. And in the Sephardic tradition and eat rice and beans and it's not just because I'm looking for an easy way out it's because I think it makes a lot of sense to me and so it makes Passover more palatable, I guess, than the Eastern European custom, or the custom itself because it's not binding law in terms of tradition it's something that I just fine more resonant. For the same reason that while I don't go out of my way to mix milk with poultry, I, like some rabbis I know would not have a problem mixing milk with poultry because foul do not lactate, they do not produce milk. And the Bible never says that we are not allowed to mix milk with poultry. It says, "Thou shalt not see the calf in its mother's milk." That's where the prohibition against mixing milk with beef comes about or milk with lamb or goat or animals that actually can produce milk.
Now in the Orthodox world what I'm saying would be an affama. How can you possibly mix milk with poultry? But when I’ve talked to even traditionalists, even though they won't say publicly, privately they are in agreement with me and in fact in the Talmud itself, 1,500 years ago there is great debate on this very issue. The debate is not resolved, it's left open. So I bring this up only because the dietary laws are very important part of Jewish culture, of Jewish civilization and I think sometimes they need to be revisited and not just taken for granted. But for me, I consider myself someone who keeps kosher but I've been able to travel through Mongolia in the Amazon in the Arctic and I've never had a problem because I'm willing to, not bend the rules, but to think about the rules and more creative way.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I think what keeps me up at night is the same thing that keeps me alive during the day and is probably the same thing that has made me the very driven and intense Rabbi and author and teacher that I am, and martial artist. A very deep fear of death; a very profound realization of my own mortality. And I think knowing that I am going to one day have to shed this mortal coil is something that, on the one hand, fills me with fear and trembling but on the other hand motivates me to act and motivates me to produce and motivates me and inspires me to help make this world a better place and that impact. So I think the fear of death and the love of life are really just two sides of the same coin. So it's not just what keeps me up at night, and it does, but it's also what helps me to get out of bed in the morning. And I think it's a terrific question and I think that would be my heartfelt answer. And that fear of life and love of death are at their core, I think, what religions in general are meant to help us address, confront, and ultimately surmount. And I know if that weren't the case, I would do it to some other location tomorrow.
A conversation with the founding Rabbi of the New Shul in Manhattan.
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- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
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Manly Bands wanted to improve on mens' wedding bands. Mission accomplished.
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