Jewish Education to Help Us Thrive

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By Dr. Bill Robinson

There is a new paradigm shift emerging in the field of Jewish education. It is one predicted in 2013 by my teacher and colleague, Dr. Jonathan Woocher (z”l), who wrote:

Twentieth-century Jewish education was designed to answer the question, “How can we ensure that individuals remain ‘good’ Jews, even as they become good (and successful) Americans” Jewish education must respond to a subtly, but significantly, different question: “How can we help Jews draw on and use their Jewishness to live more meaningful, fulfilling, and responsible lives?

At the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson School of JTS, working in partnership with leading practitioners and scholars throughout the field, we are seeking to understand and advance this vital shift in Jewish education. In our newly published issue of Gleanings, we have asked a group of scholars and practitioners to respond to Woocher’s visionary proclamation. What does it entail to educate Jews to live more meaningful lives rooted in their Judaism? What can we learn from other fields – from psychology to philosophy – to inform our work? What do Jewish educators need to know and be able to do to participate in this emerging paradigm?

I urge you to explore these questions with us. I offer this brief guide to the articles to inspire your thinking, whether you dive into a few articles (through the hyperlink embedded in each author’s name) or read this issue of Gleanings from beginning to end.

The issue begins with insights from five scholars and researchers, offering practical insights and theoretical frameworks for deepening our understanding of this new paradigm.

JTS professor Jeffrey Kress shares ideas from social-emotional learning and character (or values) education. In particular, he offers a valuable analogy from coaching that illustrates the inextricable linkage that occurs of values and practices when teaching within a community that defines (part of) one’s identity.

When one works intensely with a coach to learn a sport or craft, the goal is a holistic one. Action, abilities, and guiding values must come together; skills, an understanding of how to put them into action, and the ability to actually put them into action under stressful situations are all intertwined. As is, ultimately, a sense that the sport or craft is central to how one defines one’s self, and one’s responsibility to the team. Good coaches motivate, model, and promote practice and reflection, and they always remember that the players and the situations in which they find themselves are constantly evolving.

Alison Cook and Dr. Orit Kent, researchers and directors of Pedagogy of Partnership, bring us insights from their work on teaching and learning Torah, which they call “interpretive learning.” Through studying Torah with others, we are each bringing something that the other needs (including the Torah) and, in so doing, we are creating an ethical community that is critical to thriving.

Learning in the interpretive mode teaches us that to thrive, we each must bring something particular to the task of making meaning of Torah and of the world around us. At the same time, it teaches us that we also are in need of others to stretch our thinking, go beyond the self, and hold ourselves, one another, and Torah itself accountable in a dynamic state of responsiveness to one another. Our mutual accountability makes learning in the interpretive mode an act of ethical engagement.

JTS professor Yoni Brafman offers a philosophical framework aligned to the above perspectives – virtue ethics (which Maimonides had adapted to his articulation of Judaism). In this model, to achieve the “good life,” one must cultivate within oneself various virtues (values) through learning practices whose end are the cultivation of those virtues. Both virtues and practices are found within and through interpreting our moral tradition, and lived within the context of community. Brafman sees the purpose of Jewish education as “fostering a modern Jewish virtue ethics,” where the study of text, values, and practices are integral (in contrast to their often separate educational domains).

In addition to conveying the content of Jewish texts to students and familiarizing them with Jewish ritual, Jewish education also fosters ways of treating others and of orienting one’s life. Often this is understood under the rubric of “Jewish values” as teaching abstract ideas like tzedek, hesed, and emet. But, in practice, this should mean modeling and reinforcing through action embodied ways of acting with justice, kindness, and truthfulness, that is, through cultivating dispositions. Jewish practices, like daily tefillah, matanot le-’evyonim on Purim, or even confessions of viddui inculcate these virtues and many others.

Dr. Rebecca J. Epstein-Levi returns us to the subject of text study through a virtue ethics lens, with a particular and timely focus on gender and authority.

Such instances [as when Rav Kahana is found hiding under his master Rav’s bed while there with his wife [Bavli Berakhot 62a] also give us clues about rabbinic texts themselves. Instead of relating to rabbinic texts as simple, top-down sources of authority that deliver unmediated rulings on our day-to-day lives, the texts’ authority is better understood in terms of role modeling. When we engage with a text at a given moment, it behooves us to think about that text neither as an object whose meaning we are trying to divine nor as an oracle handed down whole, but as a partner in the conversation we are having about how to live Jewish lives. This partner is older and wiser, but not infallible or immune to rebuke. Indeed, this partner may, with uncomfortable clarity, model how not to behave.

The next four articles emerge from different areas of Jewish learning and yet each is concerned with learning to respect difference as we seek to change the world and live extraordinary lives.

JTS clinical assistant professor Meredith Katz provides insights from her experiences directing the Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT) as an exemplar of civic education.

[W]hen students are asked what they are taking away from the JCAT experience, the most common response has to do with the idea of multiple perspectives. Students gained “the knowledge of what people that think differently than me think about” and “the ability to see a problem from more than one perspective.” This ingredient, evolving empathy for the other, is crucial as we engage our learners in a Jewish experience that enables them to thrive as human beings and engaged participants in a larger society.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz offers lessons from his leadership of PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, whose mission was to inspire teens to assume leadership roles in their life.

Few things are more motivating to a teenager than to be empowered to make a difference in the world…. The primary tool they had for these meetings [with elected officials] was the information they garnered during our policy sessions. Given that virtually every public policy issue has a moral/ethical dimension, the integration of Jewish wisdom was therefore organic and welcomed. Every educational unit we developed and curriculum we published integrated the wisdom of the Jewish tradition with analysis of social and political issues that would dramatically impact the world these teens were about to inherit.

Sharon Goldman, JD, an assistant director at Moriah Early Childhood Center, shares how they work to achieve their mission of cultivating the ability of children, families and teachers to live extraordinary lives. One fundamental capacity is “pursuing peace that allow for differences that make up the whole.”

One classroom of four-year-old children decided that they wanted a place in the classroom to discuss and resolve issues. They named it “the Helping Spot” and decorated it (according to their taste and with the help of parents bringing materials) with fabric, carpeting, and LED lighting. Over time, the children began to seek out the toranim (the children assigned as class leaders for the day) to come to the Helping Spot. Over time … [t]he teachers also noticed that the children began to solve more complex conflicts on their own, such as allowing others to join in their play and negotiating space and materials where they had not been willing to do so before.

Dr. David Ackerman, director of the Mandel Center for Jewish Education at the JCC Association, continues a theme among the many articles – the ability of education at JCCs to cultivate respect among difference through meaningful dialogue.

The diversity within the group, which is a social manifestation of the diversity (read: inconsistency) within each of us, becomes a strength to build upon. As individuals learn to appreciate the differences in beliefs and practices between them, they also learn how their distinctiveness binds them together. The group, not the JCC, is the source of this learning. The relationships between the individuals power that learning. And as a group, they can venture further afield than they could as individuals.

Our final two articles offer guidance as to the ways in which you can begin to bring this paradigm shift into your own work.

Rabbi Jennifer Goldsmith, managing director of Congregational Learning and Leadership Initiatives at the Jewish Education Project, offers three small steps:

  • Create a common language through learning together.
  • Shift your culture through by taking one small element of “thriving” into all your work – with children, parents, and colleagues.
  • Take the time for you, personally, to thrive.

Finally, Anna Marx, director of Shinui: A Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education, offers four short-term strategies:

  • Learn what others have to say about thriving.
  • Experience thriving (yourself).
  • Find more bright spots (where people are successfully educating for thriving).
  • Think like a network (since no one organization can accomplish this alone).

We see this issue of Gleanings as simply another step in an evolving and growing dialogue on the future of Jewish education. Next year, we will offer a series of gatherings, in collaboration with other allied organizations, to continue deepening our mutual understandings and advancing this emerging paradigm so that all Jewish children, teens, and adults can draw on and use their Jewishness to live more meaningful, fulfilling, and responsible lives.

Dr. Bill Robinson is the dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS.

Cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy.com

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