Nurturing Intentional (American) Judaism

By Linna Ettinger

Cultivating a strong sense of national identity starts from the tender age of three in Israel, when public education becomes compulsory. In every early childhood setting we visited in Haifa during the Boston-Haifa Early Childhood Educators’ Connection Israel Seminar sponsored by Combined Jewish Philanthropies, there was a proud display, “My country of Israel” (ארץ ישראל שלי  Eretz Israel Sheli) with images of the flag of Israel, the emblem of Israel, and photos of Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Rivlin. Such a prominent nationalistic display is not commonly seen in early childhood centers in the US where education is managed on the local municipal level. From a pedagogical perspective, the question remains about the efficacy of instilling national identity and patriotism with visual displays. A visual display of national symbols and leaders can only nurture patriotism on a superficial level. A visual display is only the beginning of the requisite features of identity such as shared language, community, history, values, holidays, culture and dreams.

The result of a visit to another country always evokes serious self-reflection and awareness of our practices at home. Amidst the crumbling decay of our current social fabric, peppered with horrific shootings and sexual misconduct, the United States is in desperate need of a redirection to truly unite us as a nation. As documented by Joe Klein in his book, “Charlie Mike,” and by Sebastian Junger in his “Tribe,” veterans who return from the battlefield are traumatized by the conspicuous lack of patriotism felt by most Americans. From the perspective of early childhood education, we as Americans need to think about how we can work together to foster a shared vision of American citizenship and patriotism. To bring the challenge to a more manageable level, we can start as American Jews to address the needs of our increasingly divided American Jewish community. The American Jewish community can cultivate a shared sense of American citizenship and Jewish peoplehood starting from early childhood education by agreeing upon the shared language, history, values, holidays, culture and dreams we want our children to experience in the early childhood environment.

While philosophies of practice are still debated and remain relegated to the dictates of denominations, we can mostly agree upon the language of Judaism to be Hebrew, and that the shared stories of our tradition still connect us to a shared fabric of ethics. Our upcoming Annual Early Childhood Jewish Education Conference taking place December 11th and 12th at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts will feature workshops focusing on the lens, Am Ha’sefer/People of the Book (עם הספר). American Jewish Astronaut Jeff Hoffman, now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will share his inspirational story of bringing a Torah into space. His story can inspire our educators to become intentional educators who will strive to infuse meaning into their learning environment by bringing Torah into their learning space. If we as American Jews can all be united in our intention to bring the shared stories of the books and language of our tradition to the hearts of American Jewish children, then we will have planted the seeds of a strong sense of American Jewish peoplehood. If we as American Jews can also inspire our children to bring Torah into their space, we will have succeeded in nurturing intentional American Judaism that will hopefully serve to unify and heal our otherwise fractured American community.

Linna Ettinger is Assistant Director of the Early Childhood Institute of the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education of Hebrew College. Linna has a MJEd –ECE from Hebrew College. The Early Childhood Institute is thankful for the sponsors and supporters of this year’s Annual Early Childhood Jewish Education Conference: Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Harold Grinspoon Foundation, PJ Goes to School, Gateways Access to Jewish Education, Hebrew at the Cente, the Israeli American Council, and Shalom Learning. For more information about the conference, visit http://www.hebrewcollege.edu/ECI-2017-Conference.

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