Jewish Education Can Make Us the ‘Choosing People’

September 16, 2013 8:42 am 0 comments

Participants at the Network for Research in Jewish Education Conference. Photo: provided by Conference organizers.

JNS.orgI’ll never forget the words of my Hebrew school teacher: “While we may have once been the Chosen People, now we are the Choosing People.”

This has been a guiding principle throughout all my years as an educator, one that has accompanied me from my tenure in the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1980s and early ’90s right up until my present-day position as the director of America’s oldest Zionist youth movement, Young Judaea.

This time of the year is all about evaluating ourselves as the “Choosing People.” What choices have I made this past year, and did those choices impact the world I live in positively or negatively? On a larger scale, the High Holy Days are not just about individual self-reckoning. As Jews, we must also ask ourselves what choices we’ve made as a community—in particular, what educational choices we have made and are offering to our community members. The sad fact is, when it comes to deciding the best way to impart Jewish values onto the next generation, the writing on the wall indicates that the choices we have made as a community have often been the wrong ones.

Mass exoduses from Jewish institutions after the age of bar or bat mitzvah point to a disturbing issue—that far too many decide that their Jewish learning is done, complete, at least from the perspective of formal education. The question is why.

Part of the answer has to do with the pedagogy behind many of our educational institutions. Too much of it is either spoon-fed or else with too much focus on handed-down Jewish practice like rituals. Too much emphasis is on the “what Jews do” instead of the “why Jews do.” As leadership trainer Simon Sinek points out: “Those who know their Why are the ones who lead. They are the ones who inspire.” Too often throughout my career I have interviewed candidates for critically important educator positions, only to be met with blank faces when I ask them, “Why does being Jewish matter to the average American Jew anymore?”

Ultimately, graduates of the American Jewish educational system come no closer to answering the question, why be Jewish? This is because Judaism is taught in a vacuum, where one’s Jewish identity is entirely separate from the rest of one’s identity. Instead, children should be inculcated with the ideas and knowledge that allow their Jewish identity to not only function in a wider environment, but also serve to enhance that environment.

Our students should grow up believing that their Judaism has added value for the rest of their lives—not just until they’re done with their bar or bat mitzvah. The Jewish educational system today is in a state of, if not stagnation, one in serious need of invigoration. It isn’t enough to guilt-trip children into being “good Jewish kids,” they want to know why. Oversimplification just doesn’t cut it anymore. Children—and especially tweens and teens—have a more nuanced understanding of the world; for them, things aren’t as black and white as some educators might have you think. Children are far more ready to understand the grey areas than we give them credit for. For instance, we shouldn’t be afraid of introducing them to a discussion about God in a universe where bad things to happen to good people—to the God of the Book of Job and not only to the omnipotent, “long-white-beard” God of Genesis fame.

We must inspire them to question, to think critically and most of all to know how engage in a conversation that started 3,000 years ago and will continue—with their voices as part of that conversation – for thousands more. Good education should be about teaching children how to have an active voice in their own communities and the community at large.

“Forming, norming, storming and performing” is a phrase we use in staff training coined to demonstrate the trajectory of the educational process. All too often, our formative years are hijacked by the educational system’s attempts to “normalize” us—usually resulting in a predictable outcome. But in experiential education—that is, all education that is non-formal—a stage called “Storming” happens and is often even encouraged somewhere along the line. Storming refers to the extraordinary events in a youth’s life that ultimately make the most impact and that lead to optimal “performing.” Sadly, many of today’s educators are afraid of the uncertainty of “storming”—seeing it as a rebellion or rejection of our community’s norms—and prefer instead to stick to a rigid curriculum. Rather, Storming should be seen as a great educational opportunity—as a challenge that we can engage with and bring our students into the process as full actors and not as passive recipients. After all, our very name as a people “Yisra-El” is “to struggle.” What an amazingly empowering message with life-long resonance to teach our youth.

In the arena of informal education (like summer camps and Israel trips), we often see the “Storming” phase unfold. This is because camp environments are more likely to be punctuated with life-changing moments that have a personal impact on the participant. For example, a camper with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father might have an epiphany about his Jewish identity through his first experience of Shabbat. I’ve often heard program alumni remark, “Oh, camp was where ‘I did Jewish.’” Whatever the case is, these transient experiences often play a far greater role in defining our children’s Jewish identity than 12 years in the Hebrew school.

As educators, we need to find ways to take what happens in an educational environment that is more personal (such as the relationship between counselor and chanich at a summer camp) and bring it into our classrooms. And in the world of informal education, we need to better adapt cognitive skill development (utilized by master teachers in the classroom) to better equip students with the knowledge and tools to engage fully in the ancient-and-contemporary community dialogue. We need to allow for probing and inquiry, and not sweep the gray areas under the carpet. We need to make our children secure in their Judaism so that one day they’ll take pride in it. We do this by first injecting the inspiration and only then teaching the particulars—not the other way around.

Let’s hope that 5774 ushers a new dawn for Jewish education, one that will see as many kids and their families opt to go on waiting lists for Jewish schools, as they currently do for summer camps. In order to be the “Choosing People,” the least our children deserve is to be presented with real, compelling choices.

Simon Klarfeld is the executive director of Young Judaea, America’s oldest Zionist youth movement.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Blogs Book Reviews The Origins of Palestinian Refugee Relief Efforts (REVIEW)

    The Origins of Palestinian Refugee Relief Efforts (REVIEW)

    Romirowsky and Joffe’s book Religion, Politics and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief is an important volume for those interested in truly understanding the origins of the Palestinian refugee issue. Utilizing a treasure trove of newly released documents, the authors link UNRWA’s (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine) origins to the Quakers/American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). For those readers who thought they knew most of the Middle East story, Romirowsky and Joffe’s version provides another twist. The authors meticulously [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports Israeli Soccer Team Faces Prospect of International Ban

    Israeli Soccer Team Faces Prospect of International Ban

    The Israel National soccer team could be facing a World Cup ban, and other soccer sanctions, unless it alleviates travel restrictions and increases field access for Palestinian players and coaches. The head of the Palestinian Football Association is pushing for international soccer’s governing body, the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA), to issue a ban on Israel competing internationally, claiming Israel’s restrictive travel for Palestinians is equivalent to a form of oppression. “It’s not only the athletes,” Jibril Rajoub explains. [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Book Reviews Jewish Author of ‘Eat to Live’ Dishes on Health Care, Nutrition, Disease Prevention

    Jewish Author of ‘Eat to Live’ Dishes on Health Care, Nutrition, Disease Prevention

    JNS.org – While the national debate on “Obamacare” rages on past the recent March 31 sign-up deadline, bestselling Jewish author Dr. Joel Fuhrman says the “current disease care model of what we call ‘health care’ cannot possibly be sustained.” “There is simply not enough money available to support a system in which the lion’s share of expenditures is devoted to acute care, with virtually nothing being spent on preventive medicine, i.e. health care,” Fuhrman says in an interview. “To make [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity ‘Tears of Color’ Art Exhibit Shows Struggles of Israelis With Eating Disorders

    ‘Tears of Color’ Art Exhibit Shows Struggles of Israelis With Eating Disorders

    JNS.org – “This is how I want to be—without fear. Independent. I want to be like a bird. I want to spread my wings.” So reads part of the description beneath one of the 30 paintings on display until the end of May at the ZOA House in Tel Aviv. The collection represents the first-ever art exhibit of its kind: an exhibit created entirely by Israelis in treatment for eating disorders. Dubbed “Tears of Color,” based on one of the [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Book Reviews Overprotective or Loving? Daughters Reflect on Jewish Mothers in New Anthology

    Overprotective or Loving? Daughters Reflect on Jewish Mothers in New Anthology

    JNS.org – Rachel Ament noticed that she and her friends often shared humorous anecdotes that were typically variations on a theme: overprotective, worrying Jewish moms who smothered them with love. That included Ament’s own mother. “My mom is probably every Jewish stereotype scrunched into one,” the Washington, DC, resident tells JNS.org. “At the root of all these stereotypical, worrying, overprotective moms, is love.” A social media writer for Capital One, as well as a freelance writer, Ament decided about three years [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    Kosher Lust, by Shmuley Boteach (Gefen Publishing House, 2014). You really do want to find something positive to say about Shmuley Boteach. He is a phenomenon; very bright, an articulate bundle of energy and self-promotion. Anyone who has the chutzpah to describe himself as “America’s Rabbi” deserves ten out of ten for effort. I believe that along with most Chabad alumni, official and unofficial, he does a lot of good and is a sort of national treasure. In this world [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    JNS.org – In a throwback to the golden age of cinema, Hollywood has declared 2014 the “Year of the Bible.” From Ridley Scott’s Exodus starring Christian Bale as Moses, to Russell Crowe playing Noah, Hollywood is gambling on new innovations in technology and star power to revisit some of the most popular stories ever told. “It’s definitely a throwback to the 1950s and early ’60s,” Dr. Stephen J. Whitfield, an American Studies professor at Brandeis University, told JNS.org. Starting with The [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    Eddie Carmel, dubbed “The Jewish Giant” by American photographer Diane Arbus, is the centerpiece of a new exhibit opening April 11 at The Jewish Museum in New York. Arbus met Carmel, who was billed “The World’s Tallest Man,” at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus in 1959 but waited until 1970 to photograph him at his parents’ home in the Bronx, according to the museum. The son of immigrants from Tel Aviv, Carmel posed for Arbus with his head bowed to [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.