It’s Time for Truly Disruptive Jewish Education

From Section:
Trends in Jewish Education
Mar. 04, 2018
Spring, 2019

Source:  Gleanings Vol. 6, Issue 1


This consumer orientation to Judaism can pose serious challenges to Jewish educators. To be sure, there is nothing wrong, per se, with packaging educational programs more enticingly or attending to the varied styles of learners or evincing sensitivity for the social and emotional dimensions of student’s lives. On the contrary, attunement to learners has brought many benefits to students and educators alike.

But it is problematic when the primary focus is on process, the “how” of Jewish education, sidestepping the “why” and “what” questions. What does it mean to be an educated Jew in 21st-century America? What should the content of a Jewish education be? And why is the chosen content important in shaping the next generation of Jews? To return to the language of the marketplace, it’s not enough to consider how an educational program will prove enticing to learners without also asking what today’s learners need to master in order to become active participants in Jewish life.

If we focus the conversation around what Jews need in order to become active participants in Jewish religious and communal life, rather than what they may think they want, we will inevitably spark conversations about expectations and what kinds of literacy an active Jew requires. Our liturgy and formative texts of Jewish life are in Hebrew and these texts emerged in an environment entirely different from contemporary America. To make sense of such an alien religious culture requires knowledge. For this reason, recent trends in religious education that focus on positive experiences and/or social action activities dare not downgrade the acquisition of language and conceptual skills necessary to live as a Jew. There are, of course, more and less stimulating ways of teaching, and it is important to engage students in active learning. Yet if Jews are to live a religious life (however broadly defined), they will need to be knowledgeable about their religious tradition.

This means that a sufficient Jewish education cannot be acquired in a few hours a week over three years prior to a bar/bat mitzvah. Jewish learning is a lifelong enterprise, starting in early childhood and continuing over the course of adolescence and beyond. The time invested in Jewish activities also matters. If “doing Jewish” is limited to a few occasional acts, it won’t get much traction and it also will be very difficult to transmit to the next generation. Frequency of participation in Jewish life matters, as does the “thickness” of Jewish culture experienced in the home and settings of worship and communal gathering.

For these reasons, Jewish education can succeed only if individuals and families practice Judaism meaningfully in the home and support what educational programs aim to attain. Except in unusual cases, schools, camps, and other settings alone cannot make up for the absence of Jewish life in the home. Winning over parents as allies and positive role models in the education of their children is an indispensable responsibility of educators.

Beyond the home, Jewish communal institutions reinforce identification with other Jews across the generations (synchronically) and in their current habitations around the globe (diachronically). A connection to generations past serves to anchor Jews in an ongoing historical trajectory they know will also continue after them; linking oneself to this chain of tradition provides a form of transcendence. And identification with Jewish people in other communities adds both to the cultural richness and diversity of Jewish civilization, and also inspires Jews to embrace a mission to aid kinfolk. Achieving a healthy balance between concern for universal causes and a commitment to Jewish particularistic ones is one of the great challenges confronting Jewish education in our time. For much of the past century, Jewish educators have understood the power of Jewish peoplehood to ground young people. They would do well to reject the voices falsely claiming that doing so is “tribal.”

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Updated: Jun. 26, 2019
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