Wednesday, February 24, 2016

How do we know when Jewish education is successful?

For the past several years, I have been writing about the philosophy underlying my work in congregational education in annual cover-articles for the Temple Emanu-El bulletin. This is what I wrote for Vol. 88, No. 5. As always, I'd love your feedback and thoughts in the comments below.
When Rabbi Mordechai died, his son, Rabbi Noah, took his place as leader. Many of his followers found that in several matters he did not act as his father had, and they asked him about it. “I act,” he said, “Exactly as my father did. He never imitated others, and neither do I!” — Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim 
At Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, we employ two complementary approaches to engage our students in their cultural heritage: instruction and enculturation. While we often emphasize instruction — deliberate and systematic skill building, training and sharing of knowledge — equally important is enculturation — providing our students with a sense of belonging within our community. Our program must show our students what it means to behave as a member of our synagogue and of our people. These values are not only taught explicitly; they also are embodied in our architecture, our music, how we dress, how we treat one another and many other subtle ways.

As adults, we want our synagogue’s youngest members to feel a part of the same vibrant community that is such an important part of our lives. The distinctive elements that distinguish Jewish culture must motivate them to stay engaged with Jewish life. The values that guide us are ones that we hope to share with our children: for example, to be generous in our philanthropy, curious and inquisitive in our study, active in our service to the community at large, and moved by the words of prayer.

These values are reflected in our commitment as adults, respectively, to the Philanthropic Committee, to the Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center, to tikkun olam and to our sanctuary worship. Similarly, the education of our children embodies these values in our weekly collection of tzedakah, our Religious School classes, Mitzvah Corps and other service-oriented programs, and in our tefilah and Shabbat Kodesh services. All of these activities, and many more like them, seek to reinforce to our children the things that truly matter to us as adults. The Jewish lifestyle that we model is just as important as the content of the lesson.

For Reform Jews, however, authenticity can’t be judged by how much our opinions or actions resemble those of the people who came before us. Core to the ideology of our movement is that we not merely replicate the past but that we also renew our rituals and traditions to make them meaningful and relevant to the present generation. We therefore face a particular challenge: Because effective teaching can’t be measured by how much our students believe and behave like their parents and grandparents, how do we know when our efforts are successful?

Further complicating the picture is the fact that our parent body is composed of a beautiful and complex conglomeration of people of varied geographic origins and native languages, religious backgrounds and family structures, among many other differences. In previous issues of this bulletin, I have argued that, to respond to this dilemma, the school curriculum must be a collaborative effort between our faculty, clergy and parents. We must create a course of study that reflects the many ways in which we ourselves have been inspired — one that enables our students to make sense of their multifaceted inheritance, to relate it to their own lives, and to join together as a community with others who see the synagogue as their home. We need to think deeply about what it means to live a meaningful Jewish life and then participate side-by-side with those who have reached different (and potentially not entirely compatible) conclusions. Our task is not to convince one another to try to fit into our way of doing things but to build a sense of unity while celebrating our differences.

Amidst our diversity, we must acknowledge that there is no single thing as a Jewish “culture” that can be known or learned, for our culture is always in a constant state of flux, being made and remade anew. As Reform Jews, we recognize that for Jewish values and practices to be sustainable over time, they must remain relevant and meaningful to each new generation. Cultural continuity derives not only from its stability but also from its adaptability. As members of a Jewish community, we constantly are redefining the boundaries of what we recognize as acceptable and appropriate. We are like the followers of Rabbi Noah, who continued to call him “rabbi,” despite the ways his practices differed from those of his father.

If we wish for our children to remain engaged by Jewish life, then we must both guide them with the varied perspectives of the adult members of the community and support them in developing new ways of making their Jewish experiences meaningful. At the same time, if we wish for their innovations to affect others, then they must learn how to explain effectively how they are grounded in Jewish tradition. And, we must teach them how to articulate their beliefs in a sophisticated way that is comprehensible to the adult community as identifiably Jewish.

The audacity that Reform Jewish synagogue life demands from us is to recognize ourselves as intrinsically bound with those with whom we disagree, even when they are our own children. This only can work, however, when we all feel responsible for the perpetuation of the community. In large part, our community survives because we would rather be together with one another, despite the compromises this requires of us. But our community only thrives when we obligate ourselves to take responsibility for its upkeep and health.

For this reason, we cultivate from an early age the future leadership of the congregation and, even more ambitiously, of our people. In the Religious School, the members of our student council decide who will be the beneficiaries of our tzedakah collection. Teens in all of our high school-aged programs have genuine leadership obligations, whether as members of the youth group board, the Teen Philanthropic or Teen Benefit committees, or as assistant teachers in the Religious School on the A-TEEM. In providing our students with the tools and the responsibility to shape their synagogue experience, we demonstrate to them how valuable a part of the community they are. We know that our educational efforts are successful when our children choose to take on that responsibility and when they share with us the aspiration to pass it along to future generations.
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