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Jewish Educators: Dust or Angels?

3/17/15

By Cyd Weissman

Educator – who are YOU? Are you just below the angels and (if we could get it right) could you grow the next generation of Jews? Or are you poorly-trained-trapped-in-a-box-folks who are as helpful in growing the next generation of Jews as the dust in your pocket?

The answer depends on who is standing on the soap box.

Beth Cousens’ piece, “Can We Disrupt Religious School” in yesterday’s ejewishphilanthropy seemed to describe Jewish educators as both – a bit above the dust of Philip Roth’s basement and just below the angels, single-handedly able to make seven-year-olds understand the depth and meaning of Judaism.

Points I feel we need to consider:

1. There is no Jewish educational experience that can counter familial and societal norms. Let’s humbly recognize that family values, practices and expectations, not educators, are the prime operating system for the Jewish development of 6-12 year olds. When families check-out and drop-off, there is no Holy Grail of education to counter the family.

2. Religion itself is having a challenging time in 2015 in the USA – ala Pew and the rise of the nons. America at large is not having a religious field day. By overwhelming numbers Jews are still proud, but their knowledge and participation is far less. Again, how could Jewish education counter predominate societal norms?

3. Synagogues, Federations and much of the existing organizational Jewish landscape is still standing for Torah, avodah and gemiliut chasadim, but parents are simply asking: How do I raise a whole child in a seemly broken world?

Jewish education is one component of the larger ecosystem that grows a child. The truth about families, societal norms and reshaping religious ideas that speak to people’s real lives is complicated. It is not as easy as pointing the finger at Hebrew school (the whipping boy of Jewish life).

At our best, using wisdom, rhythm and the comradeship of Jewish life, Jewish Educators are able to connect the questions Jews have when they wake in the morning and when they go to bed at night. When we are at our best, we make possible, each person’s birthright for children and adults to discover their unique path and responsibility of making our challenging world better.

Next month, I’ll have the results of interviews with 100 parents whose children participate in bolder new models of Jewish education emerging across the country. In these interviews, we hear parents who talk Torah with their children, change their hectic schedules to meet Shabbat, and act out Jewish teachings in their lives. I’m glad to add this new body of research to the narrative.

It is not helpful to say in the same breath that Jewish education can make all the difference and makes little difference. Let’s instead talk about addressing the complicated landscape that makes the difference in a child’s life.

Jewish educators are neither dust nor angels. At our best, we are… well what would you say from your soap box?

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