Do-It-Together Jewish Education

February 3, 2010
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Saul Kaiserman

Decisions about which practices, beliefs, and values will be part of one’s Jewish identity are today — more than at any other time — in one’s own hands, and this is having a considerable impact on Jewish education. An increasing number of options now exist for those seeking Jewish learning outside of established settings like synagogues. Private tutoring, online resources, social networking, and alternative educational programs make it possible to gather information and make decisions about one’s religious life without affiliating with a particular community or adhering to a single authority.

Some who “opt-out” of mainstream educational institutions do so in order to accommodate conflicting demands on their schedules; for others, the decision to “do-it-oneself” may be motivated by high fees for membership, unresponsive leadership, or frustration with Jewish learning experiences that are not up to the standards of excellence that a sophisticated Jewish population demands. While private tutoring should, by definition, provide personal attention, an individualized approach that responds to the specific needs of each student and offers opportunities for self-guided research and discovery is also characteristic of excellent classroom settings. As well, classroom learning should expose children and their families to a range of opinions, enable belonging amid plurality, and provide opportunities for participation in intergenerational communities of practice. It may be challenging to ensure that these types of experiences occur outside of communal settings.

A vibrant Jewish education is simultaneously conservative and expansive: It is concerned with the transmission and perpetuation of existing ways of living, while at the same time it seeks to enable the future flourishing of Jewish life through innovation. Educators must therefore be expert in making relevant what is ancient while also grounding contemporary sensibilities in tradition. Decisions about the content of lessons shape the learner’s conceptions of authentic Jewish practice and the norms for communal participation. For good or ill, institutions typically have leaders that have the authority to make determinations of how and where to draw these lines and staff that are held accountable for their implementation. Where individuals or groups are “doing it themselves,” outside of institutional frameworks, distinctions may begin to blur between leaders and participants, creators and consumers, and funders and beneficiaries. While this might foster greater empowerment and shared accountability, it can also lead to curricular decisions based less on a careful consideration of communal concerns than on personal preference. We should require of our educators evidence of expertise, even if not in such traditional forms as accreditation or titles, and empower them with the authority to insist on commitments to practice that are grounded in tradition and communal engagement.

Parents are the primary Jewish educators in the lives of their children, implicitly and explicitly shaping their beliefs, practices, and attitudes about Jewish living through their own behaviors. When parents prioritize other extracurricular activities over Jewish studies or have a “drop-off” approach to their child’s schooling, children are likely to internalize the message that Jewish learning is of little importance. In households with fewer connections to Jewish community or less participation in ritual observances, it is essential that Jewish education involve enculturation within viable expressions of communal Jewish life. Teachers and tutors must not only model the values and practices that they teach, but also must enable students to experiment with and commit to the performance of those practices.

Whether we are working in institutional settings or outside of them, we should share a concern with effectively educating an increasingly diverse Jewish population with wide-ranging needs. Our common agenda must include recruiting and training creative and skilled teachers, developing engaging and useful curricular resources, and guiding individuals and families to make personal meaning out of the wealth of information and experiences to which they have access. To maximize the potential for both personal and communal growth, we should determine what kinds of learning experiences are best done individually and what in collaboration with others. For example, learning to chant from the Torah involves rote memorization that may be suited to computer gaming or forms of private study, but meaningful examination of the multifaceted meanings of a Torah portion requires engaging in discourse with others. Such an approach benefits not only individual learners but also learning communities, whose level of discourse is heightened when participants prepare in advance.

Given our limited resources, we must be careful to not duplicate one another’s efforts. The hallmark of this next decade should be collaboration. Our dual goal must be to establish unique learning environments and to blaze varied pathways in support of idiosyncratic Jewish journeys. We must ensure that those who are “doing-it-themselves” have access to supportive Jewish communities that can bring them in as stakeholders in the endeavor of creating a thriving, inspirational, and authentic Jewish future.

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Saul Kaiserman is the director of lifelong learning for Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York and the editor of the weblog New Jewish Education.

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