by Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath
When I started my doctoral research, I knew what questions I wanted to ask. I knew that I wanted to hear directly from Jewish teens about their identities, their positive and challenging Jewish experiences, and their visions for what Judaism looks like in their own lives today and moving forward. I knew that I would be hearing diverse points of view and experiences, but was also hoping to find threads of consensus that I could base my findings and recommendations on.
All of the above turned out to be true. But what I didn’t fully anticipate was how the experiences and reflections of the teens would surprise and challenge me and my assumptions about growing up Jewish in 2020. From the prevalence of anti-Semitism in their Jewish consciousnesses, to the outlying answers to questions that I thought were simple and straightforward, each interview brought up new ideas and left me thinking about all of the work that needs to be done moving forward [once I finish writing it up, of course]. One theme that came up in almost all of the interviews, though, didn’t have to do with the content of what the teens said. It was all about how they said it.
Like many Jewish educators, I have opinions on what it is to be Jewishly literate. I know what I think someone needs to be a confident Jew, or a learned Jew, or an active Jew. But now, having conducted this research, my new focus is on what it means to be an articulate Jew. So, what does that mean?
Being Jewishly articulate means being able to name the what and the why of your own Judaism. It means putting into words what it means to be Jewish, to do Jewish, to feel Jewish. It’s not easy, or straightforward. It can take a lot of reflection to be able to answer questions about what Judaism means to you, or what value-add it brings to your life, or what your ideal Jewish community looks like. I was prepared for that. But other questions, like what did your Jewish upbringing look like, or what is a Jewish space to you, are ones that I assumed would be more straightforward, and easy for the teens to respond to. So now, I’m wondering:
As Jewish educators, what are we doing to make our learners Jewishly articulate?
Do we ask challenging questions, and wait as they flesh out the answers?
Do we call on each person to personally respond to Jewish rituals and practices and stories, naming how they are impacted, or not, by each of them?
Do we provide spaces to talk about what it means to be Jewish in ways that are age/stage appropriate for each learner?
My assumption is that often, it’s easier to do a go-around where everyone says one word and participates, than to wait for each person to reflect and explore and name their own answers. It’s easier to monologue, or to listen to the vocal outliers, or not want to push for answers that might be uncomfortable or scary for us to grapple with. But it’s so worth it. Hearing these teens share what Jewish spaces are, what their visions for Jewish life are, and how they are impacted today, is inspiring. Our work is definitely cut out for us, but the challenge is worth it.
What does it mean to be Jewishly articulate?
Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath is a Jewish educator passionate about connecting with Jewish teens and emerging adults, talking about Israel, history, philanthropy, and food, and sharing meaningful icebreakers as often as she can. By day, she works in the Cleveland Jewish community and is in the process of pursuing an EdD in Jewish Educational Leadership. You can read more of her work at www.SamanthaVinokorMeinrath.com