I was proud to spend today (and yesterday) at the FCIS (Florida Council of Independent Schools) Conference, here in Jacksonville, having a chance to kvell at having the most teacher presenters of any other school and to do some good old-fashioned networking. Then during my last session, during a moment of smalltalk, someone asked me what I thought is the greatest challenge facing Jewish education today? And I said to myself, “Guess who wrote himself this week’s blogpost!”
Here’s my answer:
As an opening caveat, I must limit my discussion about issues facing Jewish education and the Jewish people to that of North American Diaspora Non-Orthodox Judaism. That is the milieu of which I am both product and practitioner and is the only setting that I feel somewhat capable of speaking about with any measure of authority or credibility. And even that limitation leaves a field too large for one person to see clearly, but having had an opportunity to work in a variety of positions and geographies, I am convinced that the single greatest challenge in Jewish education is identifying the vehicles of transferability from powerful experiences to meaningful Jewish choices. Although I am partial to Jewish camping and Jewish day school as the two most likely candidates to produce said experiences, I have participated in amazing supplemental school classes, transformative youth group retreats and excellent adult education seminars. There are opportunities abundant in Jewish education for creating connections – connections between people, connections to history and ideas, and connections to God. What I consider to be the missing link, so to speak, is linking those experiences to an ongoing engagement with Judaism between and after the power of those peak experiences fade.
Havdalah seems to be a transcendent highlight for kids attending Jewish summer camps (I know it was for me). It is amongst the most powerful events that take place at camp…and for many Jewish children takes place exclusively during the summer. Same is true for daily/weekly prayer, Shabbat observance, kashrut (of some form or another) observance, etc. – for many Jewish children these rituals only exist during the summer months when they are not only viewed as normative, but as ultimate. Similarly for (non-Orthodox) day school kids, kashrut, blessings, prayer, speaking in Hebrew, study of Jewish text, etc. – these activities are imbued with meaning and purpose within the confines of the school walls, but for many end with the closing school bell. The power in these experiences and others lie in their ability to make normative, or even better “cool,” Jewish rituals and practices that are anything but in children’s regular lives of family, synagogue and Jewish communal life.
Havdalah with your parents at home on a Saturday night with your friends waiting for you to meet them at the movies cannot hold a candle (even a braided one) to havdalah under the twinkling stars in a redwood retreat, arm-in-arm with your newfound closest friends, and guitar strumming away. Needless to say, the day school student who cannot use his/her Hebrew outside of school with friends and family will only find it so meaningful for the long term. Not mention the difficulty of replicating a magical sukkah experience at a home lacking one. The dissonance between what is preached and lived in Jewish educational settings and the family is well-known and is as difficult to breach now as it has been for the last half-century or more.
As the Head of a Jewish Day School, I consider myself to be on the front lines of this conversation. Although there is a percentage (typical in a non-Orthodox school) of families whose primary concerns are Jewish Studies, many of our families are enrolled in our school because they are looking for a topnotch secular academic program. The fact that it also comes with a high-quality Jewish Studies program and is housed in a Jewish setting emphasizing Jewish values is anything from “also important” to “nice” depending on the family. So even in the Jewish educational setting where families are arguably the most invested, we still struggle to find the motivation and vehicle for transference.
For me it begins with admissions and carries through to graduation. During initial family interviews, I am candid with parents about our school’s agenda for the inculcation of Jewish ritual and practice. It is really no different than the agenda we have for the inculcation of any other facet of our program. I want our children to go home from school excited about everything they are learning and seeking to find meaningful ways of incorporating lessons learned into lives lived. Unlike math or reading, however, we need to reach into families’ lives to provide encouragement and education to bring the Jewish Studies curriculum to life. Nurturing the relationships that allow that process to occur is, perhaps, the most important, fulfilling, and sacred aspect of my work. Finding the way to sow the seeds for Jewish journeys is my work’s greatest challenge.