Monday, April 01, 2013

Jewish Education: An Intrinsically Optimistic Endeavor

I wrote the cover story for the April 2013 Temple Emanu-El Bulletin, Volume 85, No. 8. Here is the text of my article:
Jewish education is an intrinsically optimistic endeavor. Our work as Jewish educators is predicated on the faith that we can inspire our students to personal growth. Further, we believe that by studying the past we can successfully prepare our students for an unknown future. Therefore, we act as translators, of a sort: we strive to make the ancient wisdom of our people relevant to contemporary sensibilities.

I believe the most compelling questions of value and meaning have remained largely the same since the days of the Bible. We look to our people’s history for direction as we ask ourselves the same questions that confronted our ancestors, like “What kind of person do I want to become?” and “What kind of world do I hope for myself and for future generations to inhabit?” Our people have struggled with these questions over the centuries, providing us with a legacy of their responses under varying circumstances.

The role of the Reform Jewish educator is not to pass along definitive answers to these questions, but rather to engage our learners in striving together to make meaning of our Jewish inheritance in all of its complexity. Our religious school is a “laboratory” for the Jewish future, providing experiences and opportunities our students cannot find elsewhere in their lives. The classroom is a center for Jewish life, where our students encounter one another’s ways of being Jewish. In accepting one another for who they are and what they believe, our students empower one another to say “I can be myself here and I can figure out who I might want to be.”

Our teachers -- and the members of our high school A-TEEM, our school internship program -- play two roles, each equally essential to the success of the school. On the one hand, they are facilitators, enabling our students to share their opinions and to listen attentively to those of their classmates. At the same time, they are role models, sharing their expertise in the subject matter and modeling their commitment to Jewish life. As our teachers guide their students to make meaning of our Jewish heritage, the students learn how Jewish practice and participation in Jewish community offer unique ways of engaging the world.

Our school tzedakah program exemplifies this dynamic. We teach that the Hebrew word tzedakah literally means “justice” and not “charity.” We explain that sharing our good fortune equitably with others is not only an act of compassion, but a responsibility. Over the course of the fall, our democratically elected student council (composed of students in grades 4 – 7 and led by veteran teacher Mark Willner) debates the relative merits of different causes and selects two organizations to be the recipients of the funds we raise. Members of the A-TEEM then teach the students about the work of these organizations. Through our weekly collection of tzedakah, students become advocates for those causes and philanthropists on their behalf.

Yet, there are also times when we, as the school leadership, decide where the funds we raise should go. Our collection throughout the fall always supports New York Common Pantry, so that we may respond to hunger in our immediate neighborhood. Thanks to the suggestion of a religious school parent, during the week of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 8) our collection will support The Blue Card, an organization that provides financial assistance to destitute Holocaust survivors. By sharing with our children the causes that matter to us, we pass along our values to the next generation.

Our students not only raise funds, they also provide direct assistance to those in need, particularly in our 7th grade Mitzvah Corps where students volunteer in different organizations throughout the year. Through the Tikkun Olam Committee, we run “Mini-Mitzvah” projects prior to the start of school every Monday and during school hours over the course of the year. Our high school students volunteer with our youth group on Staten Island every month to assist with the recovery from super-storm Sandy. Our young people understand that it is their responsibility, as Jews, not only to study but also to act upon their beliefs.

As Jews, we are b’nai Yisrael, the “children of those who have wrestled with God and prevailed.” We have inherited the right to be a part of a community that struggles with the profound and with the sacred. We do this by building support networks of friends and families who experience a sense of obligation to one another, guided by the decisions of previous generations while empowered to take responsibility for arriving at our own conclusions. With confidence in our children’s ability to shape their own destinies, it is our task as Jewish adults to pass along this communal struggle to the next generation.
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