September 12, 2016

There is a tension in Jewish Education and I think it stems from the dissonance between two well-known Rabbinic teachings – both from Pirkei Avot, the wisdom of our forefathers in the Mishnah.  On the one hand, the first chapter of Pirkei Avot contains a teaching, “Yehoshua said, ‘Make for yourself a teacher.’”  On the other hand, chapter four of Pirkei Avot begins, “Ben Zoma says, ‘Who is wise? Whoever learns from everybody.’”

Making a teacher for yourself involves finding a point of view and learning a perspective.  It involves trust and demands loyalty.  The teacher molds the student.  Even with the best of intentions, the teacher’s knowledge along with the teacher’s flaws are often transferred upon the student.  

Conversely, learning from everybody is pluralistic and democratic.  It involves context and nuance and empathy for others’ opinions.  It encourages the student to wade in the water of life and allow the waves to wash over.  There is no guarantee that anything will stick.  There is no predicting how the water will mold the formation of the student.

How are we supposed to follow these two teachings as Jewish parents, role models, teachers and Rabbis?  How can we expect our children and students to learn a specific Jewish perspective and at the same time be a citizen of society at large?

I would argue that in the past Jewish religious school education has tried to form a perspective through the age of thirteen and in some cases through high school.  The student finds a teacher in the form of religious school.  This forms a foundation for understanding Judaism.  Then, beginning with high school or college, the student is let loose into the world to learn from everyone.

The truth is that Jewish education must never stop.  There is never an appropriate time, 13, 17 or any other age, for one to shed their Jewish outlook for a different one.  Much like we do with secular education, we must adopt Jewish teachers and continue to grow and adopt new Jewish teachers.

To wade in the water of the world demands a strong identity.  To learn from everyone demands that first the student know who the student is.  And that formation of identity cannot be accomplished by religious school teachers only two times per week.

That’s why a synagogue community must include seniors and parents and children all learning Judaism, living Judaism and loving Judaism side by side.  That’s why our students and their families at Adat Shalom’s new religious school – the Jewish Education Center – are encouraged to participate in so many community programs and services together.    

That’s the way in which I read the Torah last week when it said, “Judges and guards shall you appoint.” (Deut 16:18)  We need the entirety of the Jewish community, people of all ages and all levels of education, to participate in Jewish education to maintain a vibrant robust community of learners.  We need teachers to correctly judge curriculum and pace, to calibrate the learning, and we need to train a new generation of students to safeguard the tradition for the future.

The two statements from Pirkei Avot don’t need to be at odds.  One should never stop learning as a Jew.  Torah is a lifelong endeavor.

In 2016, we cannot ask our children to live and enjoy and excel in society at large without first providing them with a strong Jewish education.  A strong Jewish identity allows our children to visit others and learn from others without worry that the first challenge or the first attack on Judaism or the State of Israel will shatter their worldview.

Our children should not want to shed their Jewish lens even as they walk their own path through the world.  The Jewish lens should empower them to walk through the world with a clearer principled approach and a strong moral compass.

The Jewish magnetic compass must always be set to point toward God, Torah and Israel.  It must demand that we shine more light of Torah in an ever darker, more complicated world.   It must embolden us to stand proudly with the State of Israel.  And it must connect through the generations back to Abraham and Sarah, who taught the world of the one God, who gave us both the Torah and the entire world to love and to cherish.

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