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.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Jewish History Art Can Inspire Faith; It Can Also Empower Destructive Ideologies

    Art Can Inspire Faith; It Can Also Empower Destructive Ideologies

    A June 2015 art exhibit, “The Transformative Power of Art,” at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, harnessed the universal language of art to convey an important message: “Our fragile Mother Earth faces the devastating consequences of climate change, a defining challenge of our time.” The exhibit also included sixteen portraits of people from all over the world who have “contributed to the common good of humanity in one way or another and have transformed the way we […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports Israeli Muslim Cage Fighter Says He’s Proud to Fight Under Jewish State’s Flag

    Israeli Muslim Cage Fighter Says He’s Proud to Fight Under Jewish State’s Flag

    A 32-year-old Circassian Israeli Muslim Mixed Martial Arts fighter from Abu Ghosh says he takes pride in fighting under the Israeli flag, Israel’s Walla reported on Sunday. Like most Circassian Israelis, Jackie “the Punishment” Gosh was born Sunni Muslim. He became observant about eight years ago, and is now scrupulous in following his religion’s tenets, praying five times a day and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Gosh is also very proud of his Israeli nationality, and sees no contradiction between […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Music New Mark Skinner Documentary Explores Jewish, Arab Rap Scene in Israel (VIDEO)

    New Mark Skinner Documentary Explores Jewish, Arab Rap Scene in Israel (VIDEO)

    A new documentary explores the lives and work of Jewish and Arab rappers in Israel and how the ongoing conflict in the region has impacted their lyrics, the U.K.’s Jewish Chronicle reported on Thursday. Hip Hop in the Holy Land is a six-part series co-directed by Mike Skinner, the British frontman of hip-hop group The Streets, and produced by Noisey, a music channel published by Vice news. The first episode, published last week, shows Skinner meeting with Tamer Nafar, the founder of one of […]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada 49ers Running Back Jarryd Hayne Apologizes for ‘Hurtful’ Jesus Tweets

    49ers Running Back Jarryd Hayne Apologizes for ‘Hurtful’ Jesus Tweets

    New 49ers running back and Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne apologized on Wednesday for a tweet in which he raised the age-old myth that Jews were historically responsible for Jesus Christ’s death. Reaching out to his Jewish fans, and the chairman of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, Hayne tweeted: “To the Jewish community @DvirAbramovich #WeAreAllOne.” Underneath, he keenly included a screenshot of a text message to elaborate on his apology: “I sincerely apologize for my tweets on July 1. I […]

    Read more →
  • Theater Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Recalls Being ‘Extremely Surprised’ at Winning Miss Israel Contest

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Recalls Being ‘Extremely Surprised’ at Winning Miss Israel Contest

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot reminisced about her childhood in Israel during an interview published in this month’s edition of Vanity Fair. “I don’t remember this, but my mom told me that when I was three they threw a party on the rooftop of the house. They put me to bed, and I heard people coming into the house and no one came to me. I went to the rooftop and took a hose and I started to spray water on everyone, just […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Wounded Israeli Soldiers Unite With American Veterans to Help Their ‘Brothers for Life’ Heal (INTERVIEW)

    Wounded Israeli Soldiers Unite With American Veterans to Help Their ‘Brothers for Life’ Heal (INTERVIEW)

    An Israeli organization is helping wounded U.S. veterans move past their physical and psychological challenges by connecting them with injured Israeli soldiers who understand what they’ve been through. “What we discovered very early is that there’s no ‘professional, psychiatrist, social worker’ or anything like that [or] pills that can come even close to helping a soldier who fought in combat, who was wounded, who lost his friends. No one can help him like another person who’s been through exactly what he has,” Rabbi Chaim Levine, […]

    Read more →
  • Relationships World Researchers Say Women Less Likely Than Men to Kill Hitler, if They Could Travel Back in Time

    Researchers Say Women Less Likely Than Men to Kill Hitler, if They Could Travel Back in Time

    Women are less likely than men to want to kill Nazi leader Adolph Hitler if given the ability to travel back in time, a recently published research paper revealed. The paper analyzed 40 studies involving 6,100 respondents in a time-travel thought experiment, the New York Post reported on Friday. While 60 percent of men said they would theoretically be willing to kill Hitler, only 55 percent of women said they would be comfortable doing the same. The paper was published in the Personality and […]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Jewish Groups Enraged After New 49ers Running Back Jarryd Hayne Claims That Jews Killed Jesus

    Jewish Groups Enraged After New 49ers Running Back Jarryd Hayne Claims That Jews Killed Jesus

    Former Australian rugby player and 2014 NFL grab Jarryd Hayne grabbed headlines and angered Jewish groups over a tweet last week accusing Jews of killing Jesus Christ. “Jesus wanted to help people but was killed by his own people,” Hayne wrote through his Twitter handle, followed by over 120,000 Twitter users, on July 1. Unperturbed by the potential for backlash among some of his fans, Hayne went on to tweet the next day: “The Jews were the people who took him to the Romans n forced them to give the order because they […]

    Read more →