Sunday, December 27, 2009

What's the Point?

One of the hardest things I do is try to figure out what to teach my students, whether they are supremely unmotivated 8th graders or the teaching staff at the religious school I direct or my daughters. I find myself getting caught up in what I want them to learn, what I want them to know, and I forget that maybe I need to think about what they are ready to learn, what they are ready to know. If I start from where they are, I may make more progress.

This week in the twitterverse a fascinating question was raised: Is there such a thing as a universal Jewish curriculum? I translate that to mean “what are Jewish basic skills? What does a person need to know to be a member of the tribe?” Prayer? Which nusach, Ashkenazi or S’faradi? Keeping Kosher? Which heksher, OU or Star K? Affinity to Israel? Which ideology, Jstreet or ZOA? My point is best articulated by Jay Michaelson in his recent piece in The Forward called “The Myth of Authenticity” ( in which he exposes the idolatrous nature of Jewish-ideological-correctness. Once we understand that the concept of Jewish Absolute Truth is not at all clear-cut, we can begin to create a standardized Jewish curriculum.

What are the Jewish big ideas (or enduring understandings if you prefer) we want to pass on to the next generation? As I mulled this over, Rambam’s 13 Articles of Faith popped into my head. These are the 13 things ( that Jews are supposed to believe, according to the 12th century Maimonides. They are summarized in the siddur in the prayer called the Yigdal. Are they, as written, still relevant to the 21st century Jewish world? Do you, as an educator or 21st century Jew, accept these 800 year old statements as core values in your faith? For instance, do you believe in the physical resurrection of the dead? How about the assertion that the Torah was actually given to Moses at Sinai? Do you believe in the messiah as an actual person who will be descended from the House of David? If we tried to create a curriculum based on these tenets, would our students accept them? Would they be relevant to them at all? I’m not sure.

So as we discuss Jewish big ideas, we need to make sure that they have meaning to the modern mind. If we start teaching about values that have no connection to the belief system of our students, we will be so totally out of their frame of reference we will ultimately be teaching to empty classrooms.

The strength of Judaism is its ability to evolve. Back in the days of the Mishnah, Pharisees , Sadducees and Essenes were arguing over the definition of authentic Judaism. Should Torah interpretation be permitted? Is there life after death? What about free will and angels? Today’s arguments over the role of women, the centrality of the State of Israel, matrilineal vs. patrilineal descent need to inform whatever curriculum we create. If anything is authentically Jewish, it is the dynamic nature of pluralistic Jewish spiritual and ideological development. Maybe that’s the big idea, the enduring understanding with which we begin: The glory of Jewish diversity.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

One Way or Another

I just read a depressing column in last week’s Forward ( It was written by Rabbi Irving Greenberg and it was entitled “There is No Alternative to Day Schools”. In the piece Rabbi Greenberg spelled out his case for massive funding for Day School education, declaring that that there is no other alternative in the fight against assimilation. He calls for the organized Jewish community to “muster its will to live and step up to pay the price – whatever it costs – for the highest level of Jewish education for its young.” Great sentiments. I agree with Rabbi Greenberg. Unfortunately, the solution he is proposing marginalizes most American Jews. That’s why it’s sad.

The majority of those getting any Jewish education in the U.S. do NOT attend Day Schools. Most of them have chosen the path of Congregational education. There are a lot of reasons, cost being just one. The point is that this is where most of the kids are and, I believe, where they will be in the future. So to declare that the Jewish Community needs to invest its education resources primarily in Day Schools ignores the reality of American Jewish life.

Congregational schools (Hebrew Schools, Supplementary Schools, whatever you want to call them) have gotten a bad rap over the years - in some cases deservedly so. Many of us “of a certain age” recall with shudders our Hebrew School experiences. Ironically, some of us have chosen, davka, to work in Jewish education to make it better. That’s the point. There are many Jewish educators in North America who are working very hard to recreate the Congregational School, reformatting it if you will. We’re experimenting with technology, experiential education, off-site learning, service-learning, camp-like experiences. You will find us at conferences, or in the cloud on Twitter and Google Wave. Those of us who work in Jewish education and are affiliated with Synagogue schools understand that the reality of the Jewish community is expressed in its diversity. There is no ONE way. We need to reach the kids however we can. This means that Day Schools, by definition, are definitely NOT the only alternative.

The organized Jewish community (i.e. federations) doesn’t seem to get this message. They are proud of the amount of money they give their community Day Schools, but when asked about how much they give to synagogue schools, in many cases the sound of silence reigns supreme. Amending Rabbi Greenbergs dramatic call, I believe that community organizations must “muster their will” to promote ALL Jewish education, embracing the diversity that is the strength of Judaism. It is time for synagogues and other non-Day School entities to have a seat at the community table when the discussion turns to funding the education of the next generation.

I’m not sure if Rabbi Greenberg will ever see these words. If you do, Rabbi, please understand that I wrote them with only respect for you and your message. I hope that you can understand that the future of Judaism that is embodied in our young people is rooted in more than one type of learning. During the Pesach seder we embrace the four sons, reveling in how they come to us with different questions (even if we don’t like the way they are asked), looking for answers that speak to them. We must remember that they are our children. We cannot turn them away.