Can Today’s Congregational School Teach Tomorrow’s Happiness?

By Dr. Scott Aaron

[This is the third in a weekly series of posts from a coalition of institutions across the continent devoted to nurturing the emerging transformation of congregational and part-time Jewish education. The series is curated by the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson Graduate School of Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.]


Most Jewish educators are familiar with the Talmudic tale found in Shabbat 31a, where a potential convert asks Rabbi Hillel to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That’s the whole Torah,” answers Hillel. “The rest is commentary, so go and study it.” It is a great parable that shows the clear value of Torah study: always be a mensch and learn the mitzvot in order to know how to behave like a mensch. It also gave us a clear objective for classic Jewish education: learn A in order to accomplish B because God wants you to do B as an active part of the Jewish community.

That objective mostly went unquestioned for millennia but, today, we are struggling as a Jewish people to define the objectives for our time. They are not our ancestors’ objectives. Our time prioritizes the expectations of the individual over that of the community and God, and our culture requires personal significance before committing to any communal or divine action. This reality is unprecedented in Jewish history. As a result, Jewish education is being challenged in how to calculate appropriate objectives to accommodate it.

A case in point is the recent assertion by Dr. David Bryfman of the Jewish Education Project that modern Jewish education has to teach Jews to thrive in the modern world in order to remain relevant. He describes this relevance as being “happy.” “More specifically, doing everything in our power to make students feel happy – in the deepest sense of the term. … ‘[H]appy’ as in fulfilled; enabling young people to flourish by helping students feel like they are putting forth the best version of themselves.”

I could not agree more with David’s premise, namely that the content of Judaism and the Jewish people has to feel authentically useful to today’s students. Their Jewish identity has to coalesce meaningfully with their larger human identity and provide support mechanisms for their larger needs if we want them to live positively as a modern people. The practical challenge of this premise is: How do we actually educate for happiness? How do we know what a Jewish educational experience sufficient to ensure happiness looks like?

This is a key challenge today, especially for congregational and other part-time Jewish educational programs, because personal happiness in this context has historically not been an objective of Jewish education. Before the Enlightenment the Jewish community saw what we today think of as Jewish education as, simply, education. Jews studied Jewish texts and mastered Hebrew language in order to understand how to observe and honor God’s commandments. Practical work skills were taught on the job as vocational training, unlike today when most of our kids gain cognitive knowledge deemed to be a prerequisite for the workforce. Furthermore, there was not a concern about whether students felt fulfilled by what they learned. Rather if the expectations of God, and to a lesser extent the community, were believed to be fulfilled, then God and the community were happy, which was more important than whether the student was happy.

Enlightenment and the Jewish emancipation, beginning in the 18th century, required new pedagogy for a new world. As we assimilated, so did our curriculum. Most notably, we communally shifted our primary educational value to vocational education rather than Jewish content as it offered us the best tool to meet the expectations of our newer, more open democracies. Jewish education became what we taught during non-school time like evenings, Shabbat, and Sundays. By the mid-20th century, new subject matter was being added in order to cover topics no longer learned through living in a close-knit Jewish neighborhood, such as cultural customs, lifecycle rituals, and support for Israel. Concurrently, the bandwidth for Jewish learning shrank. Time dedicated to Jewish education was now measured in hours, not days or years. The range of topics kept increasing and time kept decreasing, the expectation became harder to define, and the product made very few people “happy.”

In the last two generations, Jewish education has responded to these changing priorities and demand for personal meaning by innovating experiential Jewish education (EJE). That value of meaning-making, of “happiness,” is a proven premise for the impact of camping, travel, and other setting where EJE is often put to work that have become increasingly common as primary Jewish education mechanisms on Jewish identity. If one has authentic experiences that successfully test presumptions of values, ethics, history, cultural behaviors, etc. against reality, then one develops the practical tools to apply those presumptions to one’s own daily life and be, in this context, “happy.”

Today American Jews are disaffiliating from Jewish congregational life at unprecedented rates, though congregations have historically educated the majority of American Jewish students and continue to do so. As it happens, the clear increase in educational quality and impact of EJE has had the unexpected consequence of families who do choose congregational schools expecting them to be more like camp or other settings in which EJE has been more naturally integrated. Parents have come to associate the feelings of happiness generated in those settings as the primary purpose of Jewish education today: it makes their kids happy to be Jews.

Additionally, because we live in an age where so much competes for a child’s time, parents have come to associate those settings as good uses of time. In short, families today seem to want educational “experiences” that generate positive emotional responses to Judaism and the Jewish people in an efficient time period – experiences that are meaningful while fitting into modern multi-tasking lives. That leaves the current field of Jewish education with an existential challenge. If knowledge, literacy, and skills have always been our primary objectives, what are our new goals based on these new educational models? We know that today’s congregational education has to elicit personal meaning. We don’t know (though innovative models are attempting to do so) how to do that effectively with less time or content depth.

It is clear that we need to reformulate congregational education for our time. EJE alone is not, and never was meant to be, a solution to this challenge. A critical presumption of EJE in the last century was that it was a supplement to “formal” Jewish education in the form of day schools and especially congregational schools and other part-time sites of Jewish education. What was once “fun” came to be seen as “reinforcement” for what was being taught during the academic year, but these experiences were never envisioned, at least initially, as being the primary sources of Jewish education. However, while assuming EJE settings can just be templated into congregations is too simplistic to be feasible, EJE pedagogy is one of the tools we can use to meet our current circumstances.

More importantly though, the challenge of determining what new approach or pedagogy beyond EJE can be brought into congregational education to evolve it successfully to meet today’s challenges and expectations? What tools are sitting out there, unrecognized for the moment, as useful in this setting? What brave ideas have not been articulated yet because they involve real paradigm shifts for congregations, their cultures, and their leadership? What innovation has been discarded because there has not been a new vision articulated that would nurture its growth? Simply put, we cannot educate for Jewish happiness in the 21st century context if we do not develop original education models for a 21st century context.

We have reformulated our educational model before in our history to meet changing communal needs, and it is time to do it again. These particular changes are unprecedented in our history, and we will need to invest, experiment, and even fail in new prototypes if we are going to rise to the educational challenges we are facing today. Hopefully though, no matter what new paradigms emerge, we will still maintain the historic objective of teaching each of our kids to be a mensch.

Rabbi Scott Aaron, Ph.D., is executive director of the Community Foundation for Jewish Education of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.

This article is cross posted at eJewishPhilanthropy.com

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