Education and Community: The Radius and Circumference

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November 4, 2004
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Jonathan Woocher

Being invited to put forward a new vision for Jewish education in 750 words is like being given free rein in the candy store, with a quarter to spend — excitement dampened by frustration. So, with quarter in hand, here is what I see:

1. Jewish learning really will be lifelong — and the Jewish community will help make it so. Jewish education will be more about pathways, less about individual programs. Jewish educators know the experiences that should pave this pathway — from a Jewishly rich early childhood education to ongoing adult Jewish learning. We even know how to deliver many of these experiences quite well. But we don’t make it easy to take this journey. We fragment and compartmentalize Jewish education instead of weaving and integrating it. Institutions hoard learners or abandon them, rather than “handing them off” to others when they are ready for their journey’s next stage.

So, it’s time for a Copernican shift that will put the consumer of Jewish learning at the center. Every educating institution will see itself not only as a provider, but as a steward, responsible not just for teaching, but for guiding its learners along the path of their journey.

2. Jewish education will be ready when — and where — we are.
Japanese companies invented “just in time” inventory management: have the part there just when you need it. We are ready for “just in time” Jewish education. Despite our best efforts, Jewish educational journeys are not smooth and continuous. Jews get on our trains and get off; they switch stations and try other lines. And some are left standing by the tracks as the train rolls past, unable to find a way to board.

So, we must offer Jewish education that makes frequent stops and has very wide doors. We will anticipate those moments in individuals’ lives when they may well be looking to come aboard — new parenthood, a child’s bar/bat mitzvah, the death of a parent — and be ready to extend a welcome. Educational opportunities will be where people are — not just where our institutions are. We’ll offer lots of different ticket plans, from lifetime passes to single-trip specials. And, we’ll remember that education is a retail, not a wholesale business: it’s one customer at a time.

3. Jewish education will be about things that really matter. Decades ago, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel warned against undermining the impact of Jewish education by trivializing its content and message. The Jewish education we offer will be both relevant and profound. It will focus on what contemporary curriculum specialists call “big ideas of enduring value” — the core understandings (which Judaism has in abundance) that give shape and meaning to the details through which they are expressed.

Jewish education will certainly teach facts and skills. But its ultimate aim will be less the transmission of knowledge than the transformation of lives. As Franz Rosenzweig advised, it will begin with the learner and lead her into Torah, and then back out into life. It will begin from the learner’s real needs, real situation, real questions. It will be “personal” in the fullest sense: addressing individuals in their uniqueness and engaging the whole person, not merely some portion labeled “Jewish.”

4. Jewish education will build vibrant Jewish community. Jewish learning is in its essence a collective enterprise. So, the Jewish education I envision will be as much about building dynamic Jewish community as it will be about mastering texts or learning traditions. It will be both experiential and consequential. Na’asah v’nishma — “we will do, and we will attend,” with the “doing,” the “attending,” and the “we” all inextricably intertwined. Jewish education will be active and engaged, inspiring and guiding Jews in their quest to be a kehillah kedoshah – a sacred community with a world-transforming mission.

Jewish education will seek out opportunities to strengthen the connections among Jews, not to divide them into smaller, self-contained enclaves. Martin Buber wrote that every true community needs a purposive center. Community is created by the radii that connect each point to that center, thereby defining a circumference that is connected as well. Our center is Torah. As we connect more deeply to it, we will connect more strongly to one another. We will surely debate what Torah demands, but we will again recognize that it is precisely this debate that defines our commonality.

Is this an achievable vision? It is, because we are already on the way to achieving it. The next steps will require changes in mindset and in culture that are daunting. But, when have we ever shied away from big challenges?

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Jonathan Woocher is C.E.O. of JESNA and directs its new Lippman-Kanfer Center for Innovation in Jewish Learning and Engagement. He has written widely on Jewish education, religion, and communal life. JESNA fosters consistent excellence in Jewish education through people, best practices, and new solutions.

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