Reframing Educational Assumptions

February 1, 2011
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Jonathan S. Woocher

The great educator Joseph Schwab argued that all curricular design efforts must be built around four “commonplaces”: the learner, the teacher, the subject matter, and the milieu (or social context). These commonplaces, in fact, largely define the shape of any educational system — Jewish education included.

Today, the Jewish educational system is in a period of dynamic transition. To understand where we may be heading, it is useful to look at these four commonplaces and how each is being — or might be — transformed.

First, learners: If Jewish education is to thrive, it is clear that it must attract and engage a new and different population of learners. Today’s learners are more diverse, more desirous of having a say in their own education, more technologically attuned, more focused on meaning, and more global in their perspectives than those of even 20 years ago. For Jewish education, the shifting learner population represents both a challenge and an opportunity. As a people, we have always viewed Jewish learning as a lifelong endeavor, not the pediatric enterprise it has too often become in the American environment. We have also aspired to make Jewish learning universal — not the province of an elite, but part of the life of every Jew.

How can we bring these aspirations to realization? The key is a resolute effort to make learners true partners and co-creators of their educational experiences. Today’s Jewish education system is designed mostly around the providers; tomorrow’s system needs to center around the learners, in all their diversity. We need to ask: What are learners seeking (not just what do we want them to know)? How can we help them shape their own learning journeys? How can we make them aware of resources and opportunities that do exist and make it easier for them to access and move among these possibilities? (For example, experiments are now underway in a number of communities to provide young families with an “educational concierge.”) The number of potential learners of things Jewish is vast (and includes many non-Jews). But we will have to change our approach if that potential is to be fulfilled.

This also means rethinking who our teachers are and where and how they teach. Without question, Jewish education needs cadres of motivated, well-trained, and well-rewarded professionals. But, in our tradition, “learning” (lilmod) and “teaching” (lelamed) are two sides of the same coin. Even today, we have many more potential teachers than our current system draws on. And in the future? Imagine (as is currently being done in the general field) our programs being staffed by “learning teams” that include veteran educators, younger people entering the field, and a wide variety of “average Jews” who are themselves learners. What message would that send about Jewish learning as an encompassing, lifelong activity? Nearly every Jewish learner can find a role as a teacher in some fashion — in a formal setting, at home, as a mentor, as a participant in online discussions — and, of course, every teacher will be first and foremost a model Jewish learner.

And what of the third commonplace, what we teach? For much of the 20th century, the manifest or latent goal of Jewish education was to make Jews more Jewish. The content of Jewish education has been colored by this purpose. Much Jewish learning has been designed to motivate and equip Jews to do “Jewish things”: attend synagogue; become a bar or bat mitzvah; observe Shabbat, holidays, and other rituals; participate in Jewish organizational life; and support Israel and other Jewish causes. While these objectives are admirable, they do not in and of themselves answer the fundamental questions that many Jews are asking today: Why should these actions matter to me? How does my Jewishness add meaning, purpose, and fulfillment to my life?

Reframing Jewish education as being essentially about meaning, rather than knowledge and skills, and about being a better Jewish human being, not just a more committed Jew, is a subtle shift, but one with potentially profound implications. It calls for a Rosenzweigian commitment to broaden the scope of what we study, embracing the entirety of life and the wide range of experiences, relationships, and concerns that characterize the lives of Jews today. It means approaching Judaism not as an endangered possession to be protected and hoarded, but as a rich, multidimensional system for living a good life that should be explored from many angles, enriched by new contributions, and shared. In an age of global identities, a parochial Jewish education just won’t do, and it won’t do justice to the ambition of Jewish tradition itself to shape our lives, not just the portions of them that take place in Jewish settings.

Jewish education must change because our relationship with the fourth commonplace — the milieu in which we live — has changed. The 20th century was a roller-coaster of tragedy and triumph for the Jewish people, but it clearly established a new reality in Jewish history: We no longer live beside the larger world (if we ever did); we live fully as part of it, with all that this implies. Its politics are our politics; its trends are our trends; its technology is our technology — and vice versa. We don’t know what the 21st century will bring, but, despite our minuscule numbers, we will be part of the story that unfolds. For many centuries, Jews learned to fear the outside world, and, though there is still certainly cause for disquiet, fear will neither help nor inspire us today. Rather, we need to be far more audacious, to imagine that we can actually change this world, at least in some small measure, to bring it more in line with our ideals. So, the same Jewish learning that will, we hope, carry more Jews into a deeper, more fruitful relationship with Jewish tradition, must also carry that tradition into a deeper, more fruitful relationship with the world.

As the commonplaces of Jewish education mutate before our eyes, the vision with which the Jewish journey began remains: “I will make of you a great nation…. And through you, will all the nations of the world be blessed.”

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Jonathan S. Woocher, Phd, is chief ideas officer of JESNA and head of its Lippman Kanfer Institute: An Action-Oriented Think Tank for Innovation in Jewish Learning and Engagement. He served for 20 years as JESNA’s president and chief executive officer before assuming his new position in 2007. Prior to coming to JESNA, Woocher served on the faculty of Carleton College in Minnesota and Brandeis University, where he taught in the Benjamin S. Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service. Woocher is the author of Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews and numerous articles on Jewish education, community, and religious life.

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