(August 9, 2020, JNS Wire) While we are in the midst of the current crisis, it’s worth remembering that the generation raised in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, “was the most Jewishly ignorant of the 20th century,” noted Dr. Jonathan Sarna, who told those attending this year’s NewCAJE conference said, because parents couldn’t afford to pay for Jewish education. Now, in the supplementary school world, funds are being shifted to what is viewed as primary – care of unemployed, poor, and hungry – and, as in the 1930s, that means “Jewish education is seen as a lower priority.” Because of virus and economic concerns, young Jews are missing out on Jewish day care, a gateway to Jewish education, Sarna said at the “Summit on Jewish Education” that opened the virtual Conference. With Sunday school and Hebrew school classes cancelled in some communities, some students are missing at least 3-4 months of their Jewish education, which constitutes 10% of their total Jewish education. When you add in the cancellation of Jewish summer camps as well as Birthright and teen trips to Israel, along with the privatization of Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations, you see the magnitude of the educational crisis, he pointed out.
Online Learning Could Prevent a “Jewishly Ignorant Generation”
Many day schools, too, are in financial trouble, and some universities have cut Jewish-related courses and the staff who teach them, historian Sarna noted. We are seeing a widening of the gap between the haves and have-nots in Jewish education, he said. “We know when you miss some Jewish education, you don’t usually make it up,” he said, worrying that “we might see another generation of children who are Jewishly illiterate” and don’t know their own language, texts, or civilization, with deep consequences for years to come.” But distance learning, he stressed, offers a solution.
“Makdim refuah li-maka,” “Even before the onset of the sickness, the cure already exists (Megillah 13b),” explained Sarna, pointing out that in distance learning “we have been given a remarkable transformative educational tool that will long outlast the pandemic ….. We have been given a great refuah (healing) that we need to exploit.” Speaking at the “Summit on Jewish Education” that opened the virtual Conference, he pointed out there are some positive aspects of online or distance learning that can overcome some of the problems that supplementary Jewish education has faced over the decades.” Sarna is University Professor and the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History and Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. He also is past president of the Association for Jewish Studies and Chief Historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
“Online learning suddenly gives wide access to the greatest of Jewish teachers worldwide, while overcoming both parental transportation difficulties and the problem of extra-curriculars that led to shrinking Jewish education,” Sarna explained. Students could attend school in person one day a week, he suggested, and, throughout the week, learn through asynchronous online lessons. Additionally, online learning helps isolated Jews who live far from centers of Jewish learning. “While it is important that young Jews interact with other young Jews, this can be done during the summer or once a week,” he added. “Distance learning makes it possible for those who want it and have been encouraged to try it to have access to high quality supplementary Jewish education. This could become the norm at a low cost, offering a good alternative to Jewish day schools ….. Distance learning shouldn’t replace face-to-face learning, but can supplement it while opening up possibilities that we can exploit in the years and decades to come.”
“The Internet is not our enemy,” agreed NewCAJE President Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox, who told attendees it’s “another tool for envisioning Jewish life. We have to learn to incorporate this innovation in an authentic Jewish way just as our ancestors learned to incorporate every innovation in life over 2000 years.” Zoom has taken us into our students’ home, she said, and we need to find a way to incorporate what’s going on in the home, empowering their parents in their children’s Jewish education.
Using a Birthright Model to Create High Impact Jewish Educational Programming
“Jewish education is about changing our community, the world, and the Jewish people,” according to Dr. Jonathan Mirvis. Just as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai played a pivotal role in changing Jewish history in the first century C.E. by closing the door to the past and establishing an educational system in Yavneh, outside of Jerusalem, that would position the Jewish People for the future, once again, we are at a turning point in Jewish history, he told those attending the conference. Dr. Mirvis, senior lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is Hebrew University’s foremost academic specialist in social entrepreneurship, social innovation, and adult Jewish education. “Rather than rebuilding what we had, we must think about the future.” One of most important changes in the last few years, he stressed, is that “we have moved from ‘a Chosen People’ to ‘a choosing people.’ We are now all ‘Jews of Choice.”
As Jewish educators, we must ensure that people make informed choices, he said, and use our creativity “to make sure that Jewish education becomes become the priority of Jewish communities.” Key issues to take into consideration, he noted, include preparing for multiple participants, ensuring a well-paid profession comprised of personnel committed to Jewish education, and guaranteeing financial stability for these educators. “We also need to create high impact programming,” he said. Right now, he pointed out, “we have great Jewish educators, but we don’t have customers” since among the non-Orthodox, Jewish education is a choice. Birthright, which he pointed to as a paradigm, “shouldn’t be the first good Jewish educational experience students have,” he commented, dreaming that what needs to be created along the Birthright model is an organization that will fund annual Jewish educational projects from grades 1- 12. By separating fundraising from programming, passionate Jewish educators will be free to do what they know, he explained, and synagogues can build great programs, using the creativity of online learning and accessing the best educators and programmers worldwide. “This would transform the world of Jewish education,” he said, through multiple impactful experiences each year. And this change is now possible, he said “because Jewish institutions are facing external threats. We need to ensure that the future of Jewish education will be a prosperous one.”
The money is there to fund new visions and develop new gateways in Jewish education, Sarna agreed, pointing out that, according to Dr. Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, at least $1.5 billion is spent annually on Jewish education in the United States.
Building Caring Communities Connecting to Learners’ Lives
“There is a growing consensus that Jewish education needs to be more than accumulation of fact and figures,” according to Dr. Jeffrey S. Kress, who said that it needs to be about “living a good, values-oriented life, and it should help us enrich our own life while also helping to build kehillah (community).” Dr. Kress, Dr. Bernard Heller Chair in Jewish Education, is the Director of Research at the Leadership Commons of the Davidson Graduate School at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. During the current pandemic we have come to realize that “the great fantasy of life without school is a bust, for kids as well as parents,” he said, explaining that, in part, this is because of the current lack of social interaction in which the teacher and the students form a kehillah. “Zoom forced us to think about how relationships play out in a classroom,” he said, and we’re now figuring out how to create a community. “Kehillah building and how we interact with each other is the real Jewish learning ….. The current situation provides a green light for a needed shift in Jewish education to building caring communities that connect to the learners’ lives,” he said.
Zoom allows us to see what is going on in the lives of our students, he explained, and kehillah means caring about emotional state of others. That caring should continue when we get back to the building, he said, explaining that it is not just good pedagogy, but it also is related to the Jewish value of responsibility for each other. Distance learning also opens our eyes to connecting Jewish life to the lives of our learners, he said, because we are teaching kids in the home context and can talk about Jewish values applied at home, such as patience and helping people. We can show the direct relevance of Jewish values to the lives of our learners, he said, stressing that this should carry over to in-school lessons in the future. The answer to the question of how students can learn more isn’t covering more material, getting them to keep the camera on, or making school fun, Dr. Kress explained, but rather offering a framework that helps them understand their world. “They want challenge, involvement in something meaningful, connection, contributing, and collaboration,” he said. It is his hope that “Community, caring, and connection” will outlast the pandemic.
CUSTOMIZED LEARNING THAT BUILDS VALUES-BASED SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE
The pandemic “offers an opportunity to create something new and great in Jewish education,” said Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, Wisconsin, noting that now is the time to “exploit the openness of parents to change.” Sympathetic to the individual needs of each set of parents and students and also fearful that they might choose to take the coming year off in terms of Jewish education, Zimmerman has developed a flexible education program that can be customized for each family. The downside, she said, is the possible loss of community.
Individualized learning is not something new for the congregation, which has provided one-on-one Hebrew tutoring for years. “This is a great way to teach Hebrew” she said. “The students learn more and have a relationship with a person that is all about them.”
In developing a Jewish educational curriculum, she explained, one needs a vision that answers these questions:
- Where do we want our students to end up when they become adults?
- What values, skills, and practices do we want them to have?
- What role will our educational program play in helping them get there?
The congregation has developed a values-based educational program that will support students in developing a strong Jewish identity and connection to the community; instill in them the Jewish values of compassion, equity for all people, intellectual curiosity, and ethical deliberation; and involve them with Jewish teachings that will help them grapple with the most engaging problems of our time.
Teachers will meet virtually with families at the beginning of the year to create an individualized program for each student, she noted, pointing out that some students, her own daughter included, are frustrated with Zoom. A series of six-week virtual but substantive and engaging classes will deal with current issues such as the pandemic and social justice, through a Jewish lens. Starting with Jewish texts that deal with how our ancestors understood infectious disease and the concept of Pikuach Nefesh (the principle in Jewish law that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious rule), the curriculum will move onto communal responsibility and ethical decision making relating to the pandemic and social justice issues during a pandemic. The classes will give “students a Jewish framework for these issues. Judaism has much to say and Jewish education has to reflect this,” Zimmerman commented. “Children can be reflective and think deeply at all ages,” she stressed, adding that it is “our job, as Jewish educators, to give them the skills to think critically and be self-reflective, through a loving, meaningful, and supportive Jewish community.”
To help build community in an online world, the program will include a half-hour weekly virtual assembly where students can discuss the work that each has done, she said. In addition, Zimmerman would like plan for outdoor learning or family field trips such as a visit to a Jewish cemetery to wash headstones. “Students would learn about Jewish ritual practices,” she said, and also “perform an act of hesed (kindness).” Kits with a focus on Jewish holiday celebration and customs around the world will be sent out, she noted, adding that she has worked to ensure the curriculum teaches that Jews have different practices, depending on their cultural heritage.
Partnering with the Family and Teaching What Judaism Says about Living a Meaningful Life
“We need to be creative and visionary,” CAJE President Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox told the virtual attendees, and “imagine what it would take to create an educated Jew, then work backwards to develop that program.” And Jewish educators need to stop claiming they alone can give a child a Jewish identity. “We are in partnership with the family, which is the main building block of Jewish identity. What happens in a child’s home happens with parents and grandparents and is more important” than what happens in the school building. The children we teach are the adults of the future, she commented, adding that we need to give them the tools they need by teaching them the things that will sustain them thorough the most difficult days of their lives. They need to learn that Judaism “has important things to say about living a meaningful life.” When teaching prayers, we often rush through them and “don’t make time to listen to the great wisdom they are offering us about life,” she noted. “Let’s make sure that we see the student as people with feelings and struggles. They need to know how to read the text and also to find the connection between themselves and their lives and the texts.” Additionally, Jewish educators need to have a vision, and not just offer one program after the other. “We need to know what the outcome and how we are going to get there,” she said.
“We are all living through history,” according to Koller-Fox. “The world is demanding a lot of Jewish educators and clergy these days. We are called on to learn new skills and are rethinking the essential goals and methods of our profession. We have learned to find comfort on screen and to praying in online communities. We find ourselves with the time we always have thought about – time for families and time to learn and consider what it means to be Jewish in America. We have come to understand that in our little corner of the universe, we Jewish educators, we who pass on Jewish religion and culture from generation to generation, we also are essential. Who knew that someone who put Judaism low down on their list of priorities, would suddenly turn to Judaism to keep their feet on the ground and give them hope in these dark times? We are being given the chance to stitch a new garment for an audience whose hearts is open to it, an opportunity to help adults understand why justice is such a key Jewish tenet, and why it is just one of many Jewish values that can help them find their way in life. An opportunity to show the children who we teach that Judaism has a central place at home and not just in a school building or a camp. To help them understand that our ethical behavior is rooted in Torah. An opportunity to connect to our native resilience. Just as our ancestors survived pandemics, anti-Semitism, and all manner of hardships, so can we.”
NewCAJE is a non-profit trans-denominational organization advocating for Jewish education and Jewish educators in all job descriptions in the field. Its annual conference emphasizes the sharing of information, techniques, and problem solutions, while creating a network of support for Jewish educators and a conduit to innovation. Almost 1400 Jewish educators virtually attended this year’s month-long conference.