The crisis is real, and there is no virtue in ignoring it. The pressure on day-school leaders and boards is relentless, and the immediate question is how to keep our existing educational institutions afloat. But the strategic challenge is to imagine “the new normal”—including the new possibilities—born of this multifaceted crisis. In short: how do American Jews—and Americans in general—eventually turn this tidal wave of disruptions into (as the great social thinker Joseph Schumpeter put it) “a gale of creative destruction” in the Jewish education sphere? Looking beyond the current crisis, can we fashion new models of Jewish schooling that are intellectually, culturally, and economically stronger than ever? And can Jews serve as a light unto other traditional communities in America, who face similar challenges?
Yet even as we rally—rightly—to sustain our existing Jewish schools, the current moment invites us to think anew about some long-standing challenges. Can we build viable schools that prepare traditional American Jews to live in an untraditional age? Can we integrate modern technologies of learning while opposing the excesses of modernity? Can we lower costs while promoting Jewish excellence? Can we win access to public funding without succumbing to the deforming regulations of the administrative state? And will we resist the progressive, anti-religious, anti-Zionist wave of elite American culture, or will we capitulate to our own gradual demoralization and demise? These are not easy challenges, but as the wealthiest and freest Diaspora community in Jewish history, we can take solace in knowing that Jews have faced much grimmer circumstances before.
Experiments in Exile: Ancient Texts, Zoom Seminars
Like so many other American institutions, Tikvah—the publisher of Mosaic and the educational institution and think-tank that I help lead—was forced to shut our office and send our staff into exile. Our conferences and in-person seminars were abruptly canceled; and our residential summer programs for high-school and college students quickly went from questionable possibilities to obvious impossibilities. So we did our best to adapt, like so many other innovative Jewish institutions. And painful as it was to cancel longstanding programs, we also came to recognize new educational possibilities for the first time, all with potentially long-term implications for the Jewish educational world as a whole. A few examples may be revealing.
It is my final example that is potentially the most revealing and consequential. Before the pandemic, Tikvah had never worked with younger students—all of our programs began around the senior year of high school. But we were itching to try. With students suddenly in exile this spring—often with partial school schedules and no extracurricular programs—we started a little experiment: high-level seminars—meaning ten to twelve students per class, led by gifted professors—for 7th and 8th graders. The first class was on the difference between Jewish and Greek understandings of human nature: that is, the “Jerusalem and Athens” question, at a middle-school level. Then we added a class on Jewish ideas and the American founding. Then we announced a suite of classes on everything from the meaning of the Six-Day War to the book of Jonah, from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice to the dynamism of the Israeli economy, from heroism in Homer to Israeli military strategy. Demand exploded, leading to roughly 100 online classes, all in small groups, throughout the summer: the unexpected birth of Tikvah Online Academy.
Again, to be sure, much was lost in not bringing together our high-school and college students in person for the summer: the fast-forming friendships, the long arguments over lunch, the immersive Jewish environment in which spirited singing and serious study mixed seamlessly together. But much was also gained, including the impetus for Tikvah as an institution to educate younger students, the ability to reach far more students at a much lower cost, and a great marriage of eager learners and master teachers in which physical distance was no barrier to (virtual) intellectual community. Against the tide of trying to make Jewish learning “cool,” we opted for traditional texts and enduring human questions; against the tide of teaching Jews to be “nice,” we reminded them that Jewish sovereignty was won on the battlefield; against the modern obsession with “STEM,” we read old books (slowly and carefully) that remain as timely as ever; and against the tendency to separate Jewish learning and general studies, we tried to show young Jews that Jewish ideas lie at the heart of Western civilization at its best. Over time, the fact that we were doing it on a screen became much less significant than the fact that we were doing it at all. This, I believe, is a great opportunity for Jewish educational institutions across the nation, from elementary school to high school to college and beyond.
For generations, Jews in the United States struggled to gain acceptance in every corner of American life, to participate fully in everything this great country has to offer, to work as engaged citizens to make our experiment in self-government better. There was, and remains, much that is noble in these pursuits. The challenge we face now—under great pressure and in fast-changing conditions—is different: to stand true to our Jewish distinctiveness, even if it means going against the grain of 21st-century America. Such civilizational confidence alone—the willingness to stand our Jewish ground—is what will sustain American Jewry in the difficult days ahead. Even in the face of the Great Disruption, we will fashion schools and colleges that transmit our majestic inheritance. Our most creative and committed Jewish educators—teachers and rabbis, day-school principals and board leaders, scholars and donors—will step forward to advance this great mission. And even if the ultimate fate of the Jewish people lies in Israel, we will find a way to build sacred and sturdy tabernacles in the most welcoming diasporic desert the Jews will ever know: that “almost chosen” nation called America.
Read the entire article at Mosaic.