Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture First English-Language Trailer Debuts for Natalie Portman’s Hebrew Film ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ Based on Amos Oz’s Memoir (VIDEO)

    First English-Language Trailer Debuts for Natalie Portman’s Hebrew Film ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ Based on Amos Oz’s Memoir (VIDEO)

    The first English-language trailer for Natalie Portman’s directorial debut — A Tale of Love and Darkness — based on Israeli author Amos Oz’s memoir, was released on Thursday. The movie, originally filmed in Hebrew, tells the story of Oz’s childhood in Jerusalem at the end of the British Mandate and the early years of Israel’s independence. Portman, who was born in Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew, plays the lead role of Fania, the author’s mother. She struggles to raise her son as she deals with inner demons, a […]

    Read more →
  • Features As Berlin Prices Rise, Israelis Turn East for German Real-Estate Bargains

    As Berlin Prices Rise, Israelis Turn East for German Real-Estate Bargains

    JNS.org – Sonnenallee, a street in Berlin’s Neukölln district, looks like it comes straight out of an Arab city — so much so that it goes by the nickname “Gaza Strip.” Kebab and bakery shops are advertised in Arabic; men sit in men-only coffee shops; and bridal shop windows showcase glittery, not-so-stylish gowns. But take a random turn, and you’ll find a swath of bars, burger joints, and Indian restaurants where hip Berliners announce that they have arrived to urban coolness. […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Slays in ‘Wonder Woman’ Trailer (VIDEO)

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Slays in ‘Wonder Woman’ Trailer (VIDEO)

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot engages in fierce action sequences in the new Wonder Woman trailer, which Warner Bros. premiered during the San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday. The nearly 3-minute trailer, the first to debut for the superhero film, shows scenes of Diana, princess of the Amazons, fighting alongside men in the battle against the world’s toughest enemies. The first shot of the video shows Wonder Woman discovering a man, Steve Trevor (played by actor Chris Pine), washed ashore. The clip then takes viewers to the all-female island where Wonder Woman was born. […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture A Theatrical Look at Diplomacy and the Oslo Accords (REVIEW)

    A Theatrical Look at Diplomacy and the Oslo Accords (REVIEW)

    Is diplomacy worthwhile, even if the end result isn’t what we hoped for? That is the question, among many others, posed by the new play Oslo, by J.T. Rogers. Making its New York debut at Lincoln Center, the play examines the secret diplomatic process that led to the historic 1993 peace accords. The character of Shimon Peres makes an appearance onstage — and he, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, tower over the proceedings. But they mainly do so in absentia. Instead, […]

    Read more →
  • Spirituality/Tradition Sports Israeli Trailblazer Dean Kremer Brings Jewish Values to Nascent Pro Baseball Career

    Israeli Trailblazer Dean Kremer Brings Jewish Values to Nascent Pro Baseball Career

    JNS.org – Other than being part of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, Sandy Koufax and Dean Kremer have something else in common: a respect for Jewish tradition. Koufax — who was recently ranked by ESPN as the best left-handed pitcher in Major League Baseball (MLB) history — decided not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because the game fell on Yom Kippur. “I would do the same,” Kremer said in an interview. Last month, the 20-year-old Kremer became […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Lead Guitarist of British Rock Band Queen Asks Adam Lambert to Sing in Hebrew During Upcoming Israel Concert

    Lead Guitarist of British Rock Band Queen Asks Adam Lambert to Sing in Hebrew During Upcoming Israel Concert

    The famed lead guitarist of British rock band Queen, Brian May, encouraged Jewish singer-songwriter Adam Lambert to perform in Hebrew during their upcoming joint concert in Israel, an entertainment industry advocacy organization reported on Tuesday. During a recent interview with Israeli television personality Assi Azar, May was played a 2005 video of Lambert singing the popular song Shir L’Shalom, (Song for Peace). May was so impressed by Lambert’s singing of the Hebrew track that he told the American singer, “We have to do that. Let’s […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Kenyan Marathoner to Compete for Israel in Rio Olympics

    Kenyan Marathoner to Compete for Israel in Rio Olympics

    JNS.org – Kenyan-born marathoner Lonah Chemtai is expected to compete for Israel at the Olympics Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil next month after gaining a last minute approval. “I am very proud [to represent Israel] and I hope to achieve a new personal best time,” Chemtai told Reuters. Chemtai, who grew up a rural village in western Kenya, first came to Israel in 2009 to care of the children of her country’s ambassador to Israel. The 27-year-old runner recently gained […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Will Laughs Lead to Love on Show About Orthodox Dating?

    Will Laughs Lead to Love on Show About Orthodox Dating?

    To date or not to date? That is not the question for most Modern Orthodox singles in New York. The question is when will they find their future spouses, and when will their families stop nagging them about having babies? Inspired by the success of the Israeli show “Srugim,” Leah Gottfried, 25, decided she would create and star in her own show, “Soon By You.” “Dating is so serious already,” Gottfried said. “We wanted to take a lighter approach and laugh at the […]

    Read more →