Saturday, May 31, 2014

My Statement of Jewish Educational Philosophy

I am committed to developing learning experiences that are relevant, inspirational and transformative. I aim to provide students and their families with the tools to participate meaningfully in the community, with pride in their heritage and with the awareness that their actions will shape the future in ways beyond their imagination.

Education is an intrinsically optimistic endeavor. Our work as educators is predicated on the faith that we can inspire our students to personal growth and empower them to achieve greatness. 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 lessons of the past 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. As Jews, 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?”  The role of the educator is not to pass along definitive answers to these questions, but rather to engage our learners in striving together to formulate sophisticated and nuanced responses that inspire them to action.

The Jewish school can be a center for Jewish life, where our students encounter one another’s ways of being Jewish.  In accepting one another for who we are and what we believe, we empower one another to say “I can be myself here and I can figure out who I might want to be.” I believe our classrooms must be the “laboratory” for the Jewish future, providing vital and distinctive experiences our students cannot find elsewhere in their lives and in which cultural experimentation – the production, rather than consumption of culture – is the norm.

Parents, students and other members of the school community must be stakeholders in the success of this endeavor, playing a critical role in shaping the school’s vision and culture. It is essential that we validate the diversity of experiences of those individuals, offering access and authority to those whose voices have been absent from communal Jewish life. Simultaneously, a school’s faculty and leadership must strive constantly to model the thoughtfulness and mutual respect that we seek to promote in our students and their families. 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 community.

As Jews, we are b’nai Yisrael, the “children of those who have wrestled with God and prevailed.” We are fortunate to be the inheritors of an ancient wisdom that guides us in living principled lives in complicated times. At the same time, we assert our right to be a part of a community that struggles to make meaning of the profound and the sacred.

It is our task to strive to become the best people we can be, proud of our heritage while accepting no dogma blindly, guided by the decisions of previous generations while empowered to take responsibility for arriving at our own conclusions. As part of vital networks of friends and families who are reflective about their actions, passionate about their beliefs and kindhearted toward one another, we can be confident in our children’s ability to shape their own destinies, and join together with those of all faiths and backgrounds to build a just and virtuous society.


Nancy Bossov said...

Kol ha-kavod Saul. I've never responded to a blog post before (I know, embarrassing) but yours has inspired me! I love the first paragraph - perfect! A thought on paragraph 2: Certainly the future is unknown but a certain percentage of it, theoretically and realistically, can be determined by one’s own actions. This notion of empowerment is crucial in helping our students feel as participatory characters in the ongoing saga of the Torah, today’s living Torah: Us.

I often wonder why we refer to our schools and synagogues as the "center of Jewish life", as if there were another life. Offering Judaism as a “subject” in school like math or science has always confused me. The Tanach as a record of history, a collection of guidelines for life, certainly acknowledges the existence of many cultures and alternative lifestyles, but it is clearly in context of one’s own life if one is a Jew.

I often experience this question when surveying a “Jewish” classroom. If we compare a classroom in a Temple Emanu-El or a Church of God (evangelical), which will call out “Jewish” to you? For me, both, because I live Jewishly, I experience the world Jewishly, I approach challenges from a Jewish perspective and I strive to help my students and their teachers to view the world “through Jewish eyes.” Having a Kiddush cup up on the bulletin board does not make a Jewish classroom or make a classroom Jewish.For me, math is a Jewish subject, science is a Jewish subject, literature is a Jewish subject because the source of it all, is the same and the meaning intrinsic is from the Creator of the world.

Something you might want to consider in paragraph 4, is your sudden change from "us" and "we," to "they." I'm grateful for your context throughout of "inclusive we" but wonder about the shift here to "they."

You've inspired me to think about an assignment for every Jewish parent or parent of Jewish children and teachers of Jewish children to write a personal statement about one's own perspective on raising the next generation of Jews. Thank you Saul!

Saul Kaiserman (thinkfred) said...

Nancy: I am so unbelievably flattered that you, one of the people who inspired me in my youth and young adulthood to follow this path, took the time to write this feedback.

I have updated the language in the 4th paragraph from "they" to "we." Thanks for that! I hope that the later paragraphs in this piece incorporate your thoughts about empowerment, and about Judaism as a way of life rather than a subject to be studied - I definitely feel as you do!

Two other pieces of feedback I have received, and my thoughts in response:

Isaac Shalev: "If the classroom is the place for creation, rather than consumption of culture, where is the place for Jewish acculturation? I'm deeply concerned about the the content piece." I would argue that culture is always a creation or a becoming. Yet anything new intrinsically is built in a dynamic relationship with what came before (that's where the content comes in).

Adrian Durlester: "Must it be "classroom" and "school?" Can Jewish education evolve past this limiting model?" For sure it can and should - and perhaps in the summer camp (for example), some of what I've written here is already taken for granted. I'm more familiar with the school as a setting, but I think much of what I wrote I would stand up for other types of environments.