Moving Beyond Movements

November 1, 2005
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Sarra Alpert

“Uh-huh. That’s a great idea.”

I am doing what I always do when I talk with this supervisor — nodding and agreeing. She has just observed my Hebrew School class, which she does every few months, and is now giving me her feedback. I take notes; I uh-huh; I validate as if she were a parking stub.

“Is there anything else?”

She shifts uncomfortably. “Actually, there is one more thing.” I sit up a little straighter. “When you were teaching your unit on Abraham and Sarah, one of the children asked you if the Torah is true. Your answer was,” she looks down at her notes, “‘Some Jews think it is, some Jews think it’s not, some Jews think parts of it are true. The point isn’t whether it’s true or not, the point is that we think it’s really important for everything it teaches us.'”

I’m puzzled. This is the answer I’ve been giving consistently. It’s the most direct and accurate answer that I can think to give, and it also gives children a sense of the possibilities within Jewish belief and practice, an idea I believe to be very valuable. “Uh-huh.”

Apparently not everyone feels that way. “I was uncomfortable with that answer,” she continues. “The answer should have been ‘Yes. The Torah is true.'”

Over the past seven years, I have worked at nine different Hebrew Schools. As opposed to the conversation described above in a Conservative school, in one of the other schools, a Humanist congregation, I was given instructions that there was to be no mention of God or commandedness; I was to describe the Torah as a collection of myths that people used to believe “a long, long time ago.”

I find it hard to fathom that either one of these doctrines leads to a vibrant, engaging, sustainable Jewish community. In one, if I stick to the dogma and give a straight-faced account of talking snakes, I am distancing my students even further from a meaningful understanding of a Judaism that feels applicable to their lives and real in their times. In the other, if I stick to the dogma and present a Judaism where belief in God and the idea of being commanded are only a part of our ancient history, without room for new, contemporary ideas, I am presenting a narrow understanding of a wide-ranging religion that offers Jews today myriad ways to experience their Jewishness. The key word is sustainable — if we, particularly young Jews struggling to define ourselves, are offered the choices of “my way or the highway,” many will turn toward the highway without looking back.

I have also taught in two Hebrew schools that were not affiliated with any movement. In those schools, I have not only been allowed but also encouraged to present a range of Jewish understanding and practice. The lack of movement doctrine governing these particular Jewish communities means that what they teach and practice and value is a representation not of a statement coming from outside their community, but a reflection of who they actually are. Because there aren’t pre-set answers to the questions of what defines their religious and educational environment, they have had to struggle with those answers personally and communally. Many drafts of mission statements have been written, many discussions have been had, many bagels have been eaten. And in the end, while they have established   parameters around basic value statements — defining who they are, why they have come together, and what they are trying to create — there is also a deep-rooted appreciation for the range of ideas contained within their community. The result is a place where diversity encourages more complex understandings, where struggle breeds engagement and innovation. A place where children hear about all that Judaism can be and where I, as their teacher, get to pick through all of that with them, praising their questions and helping guide them through the rich array of possible answers.

What would the Jewish world look like if synagogue missions were based not on movement doctrine, but on the philosophical, religious, and cultural ideals of that specific community? If the questions to ask in assessing and understanding a synagogue were not “Is it Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist?” but “What is the position on egalitarianism? How does the community relate to issues of social justice? How do they approach education? What choices have they made about the content and structure of their service — the siddur used, the tefillot included or not, the language in which the prayers are recited?” When movements structure doctrine, when they define answers for a community, it vastly limits the personal engagement of the community to decide whether or not an answer fits the community and the members’ images of themselves as Jews.

Movements are such a relatively new part of Jewish history, yet our institutions and religious identifications have often come to be defined by them. But now, in growing numbers, individuals, groups, and institutions are acknowledging that Judaism may thrive more fully without the binds of movement identification. These new “post-denominational” or “trans-denominational” minyanim and institutions are defining their choices within their specific community, rather than taking those definitions from a movement’s dictionary. Working in these communities, I have seen adults and children struggling with their questions and in doing so embracing a Judaism that is open to the varied ideas, approaches, and understandings that make our tradition so rich and multilayered.

When traveling in Germany last winter, my group visited the small town of Worms to see Rashi’s yeshiva. Our tour guide showed us a diorama of the former walled-in Jewish ghetto in Worms and told us a story about another ghetto. One day, a government edict arrived saying that the ghetto walls could come down. An eager young man climbed up and started dismantling the stones joyfully. The elders stopped him. “We like our walls,” they said. “It keeps in what we choose and out what we don’t.” So the walls stayed up and, in many Jewish communities, those metaphorical walls are still up today. But children — and all people, really — find ways to scale walls, to tunnel under, or simply to break them down as they barrel through. My hope is that we can share in that process of breaking down the barriers, keeping some of the pieces of who we have been and creating a Judaism that reflects who we are and who we may yet become.

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Sarra Alpert teaches at New York University in the Expository Writing Program. She also teaches Hebrew school in Brooklyn and Tribeca. She recently completed her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at NYU and is working on a book of short stories. Sarra has been continually enriched by her work and participation in the wide variety of vibrant and innovative opportunities in the Jewish world today.

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