Monday, October 03, 2011

Jewish Education Is About Living Jewish Values

I wrote the cover story for the Temple Emanu-El Bulletin, Vol. 84, No. 2, October 2011. Here is the text of the article:

In the fall of 2009, Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York was named one of 24 “innovating congregations” in the New York area because of our dedication to educational transformation. We became a founding member of LOMED (Hebrew for “learning”), a coalition of diverse institutions from New York City, Long Island and Westchester, all committed to developing educational programs that are relevant, engaging and inspirational.

During the past academic year, LOMED provided the resources for us to create a four-minute video about our seventh grade Mitzvah Corps. (View it at LOMED also awarded us a grant supporting professional development for our faculty and experimentation with new approaches to learning. We’ve put this funding to good use: After its pilot year, our eighth grade Lirdof Tzedek (“Seeking Justice”) program was identified as a “highly effective model” recommended for replication by other synagogues.

Most important, our work with LOMED has provided a framework to think deeply about the ultimate aims of our school. What is it we hope our children and their families will gain from the Religious School experience? How will it influence our community, both now and in the future? Through LOMED, we defined the purpose of Jewish education at Emanu-El: To support our families in living Jewish values.

Living Jewish values means much more than remembering stories from the Bible or being able to say a prayer in Hebrew. There are far too many examples of people who are knowledgeable and perhaps even religiously observant but who somehow fail to live ethically. For our students, studying a Bible story involves investigating the dilemmas faced by our ancestors and exploring their actions, the virtuous and the shameful, the praiseworthy and the irresponsible. We ask how the decisions they made might serve as examples in our striving to be wise, just and compassionate individuals.

Many ways exist for educators to talk about what we do, and as in any profession, much of it is insider jargon. LOMED provides a language with which we can articulate the goals of the school curriculum clearly and simply. Using the diagram that accompanies this article as a guide, our teachers collaborate to shape meaningful and vital learning experiences.

This diagram is a clever mnemonic device that highlights four dimensions of effective instruction. First, every lesson must engage and inspire the mind of the learner (the “head”). Second, the “hand” is a reminder that every learning experience must both incorporate and lead to action—perhaps a change in behavior or the development of a new skill. Third, we must consider the “hearts” of our learners, for in everything we teach we must ask, “Why should we care?” And finally, the “feet” remind us that effective Jewish education leads us to take a stand on our beliefs as a part of a community.

This “whole person” approach ensures that our Religious School program is responsive to the genuine questions of our learners, that the learning is applicable to daily life, and that our school community is one in which our children will grow into responsible and capable Jewish adults. Each classroom is a laboratory for Jewish living in which the teachers model the thoughtfulness and mutual respect that we seek to promote in our students. The care and concern our teachers have for each child enables our students to support one another and to challenge themselves to grow as individuals, as family members and as part of an ethical Jewish community.

We are fortunate to be the inheritors of ancient wisdom that guides us in living principled lives in complicated times. At Emanu-El, our students become reflective about their actions, passionate about their beliefs and kindhearted toward one another. As we strive to become the best people we can be, proud of our heritage while accepting no dogma blindly, we are prepared to join together with those of all faiths and backgrounds to build a just and virtuous society.


Anonymous said...

I love what you wrote. One caveat: I disagree with "believing" as a goal of Jewish learning. What if someone decides not to believe in something s/he has been taught? Have we failed?

In my thinking, as long as a learner values the teaching, we have succeeded, even if s/he as an independant thinker, chooses to "disbelieve" a part.

Saul Kaiserman (thinkfred) said...

Yes, I totally agree with your point. I see the "believe" goal not as proscriptive but more as an exploration ("what do I believe? what matters to me?").

Anonymous said...

Indeed, having used (and taught) this model, I think it is the "believing" piece that makes it specifically Jewish rather than just general guidelines for good learning.

The four dimensions also maps easily onto the four worlds and the four elements - earth/action, water/emotion, air/intellect, and fire/spirit.