Our Stories

Changing The Way We Think About Jewish Learning

The car pulled into the synagogue parking lot; a Sunday morning like any other. The rear doors flew open and two kids jumped out of the car and ran to the front door.

“Here, kids run to our school,” one congregant observed proudly, sparking smiles among the adults nearby. The students’ excitement and engagement give lie to the notion that Jewish kids “hate Hebrew school.”

This was, however, not a Sunday morning like any other. One day earlier, children were running from their synagogue in Poway.

Congregants were putting security measures into place, amid heightened fears of copycat violence after Poway. This was not a simple question – to do nothing was to invite disaster. To go overboard risked the community’s welcoming, inclusive, and joyful character.

How do we protect ourselves from what our children in Poway were running from, without destroying the things our children are running to?

In many ways, the heart of our work at Jewish LearningWorks is advancing Jewish learning students run to.

When I was growing up, there was plenty of attention paid to what our families had been running from. Survival felt precarious. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, how could it not? The commandment that most animated my religious school experience was: “do not give Hitler any posthumous victories.” The goal of our Jewish education often felt less about our understanding and more about our allegiance.  

Historically, Jewish education has been less focused on allegiance, more on teaching students how to think, act, and live Jewishly. Educators are shifting focus back to this historic aim, understanding that Jewish learning can help us live better lives, of wholeness, well-being, and purpose. This shift is more congruent with how parents and children see their lives in 21st century America. These are the values, qualities, and methods that students are running to.  

This is what we mean when we say that Jewish LearningWorks advances Jewish learning that enriches lives and helps learners and families flourish. We plan in the coming year to amplify this message and help educators implement these approaches in their schools. These efforts will culminate with a gathering next January when we will convene a Bay Area summit on new paths in Jewish education.

There are several dimensions to this shift:

It’s about the learner.

There is much in our tradition that involves obligation. Attention to obligation must not obscure the many ways that Jewish learning can benefit the learner. Our tradition calls upon us to be open to the joy and wonder that surround us. My teachers taught me that “doing Jewish” was what I was supposed to do.  Students can learn that “doing Jewish” is what they get to do.

Jewish learning is the sparking of a flame, not the filling of a pail.

Students don’t run to sit in a classroom and be lectured to. They learn best as active partners in constructing their learning. This how great learning works.  It’s also how Jewish civilization works. The Jewish people have engaged in an active dialectic with God and with one another ever since Abraham argued with God in the Book of Genesis.  Judaism and Jewish learning don’t work if we are passive.

Life is with people.

One does not “do Jewish” alone, nor does one learn Jewish in isolation. Jewish learning involves learning to whom we belong, and what we owe to one another. Learning is social and traditional relational methods, such as chavruta learning (learning with a partner) are re-emerging. How students develop relationships is itself an important component of Jewish learning.

Our students do not live in a vacuum.

We live in a world that cries out for repair and for healing. Rather than only looking inward, Torah can guide students to deepen their impact on the world. An example: a young man at a social justice rally fighting racism, holding a placard that read:  “This is why I went to Hebrew School.”

Educators using these principles are revitalizing Jewish education. They help students and families thrive and they strengthen our community.

To advance these ideas and methods of the old/new Jewish education, we plan to gather educators, parents, rabbis,  community leaders and others who care about educations in San Francisco on January 13, 2020. We’ll bring together from across North America some of the brightest lights in these new approaches to Jewish learning. We hope you can join us for Elevate:  Inspiring New Paths in Jewish Education.

A century ago, Jewish schools promoted their value as antidotes to assimilation. “Will Your Children Be Yours?” asked a brochure for parents – anxious that they might lose their children to the fleshpots of the New World.  The new Jewish education addresses a different set of questions: How can Jewish learning help our children live lives of meaning and build the world they will want to live in?