experiments, instruments & measurement book

When A Duck is No Longer a Duck

by David Bryfman, Director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at The Jewish Education Project

“If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”

We've all probably heard this saying many times before. And I guess it still rings true. But I guess that here comes a certain point in the life of every ornithologist, or anyone who's ever observed our fair  feathered friends, when one begins to ponder – it doesn't quite look like a duck, nor does it really swim like what I thought a duck would swim, and quite frankly it doesn't even sound like a duck. So the  question becomes when is a duck no longer a duck?

I asked myself this question just last week when I was privileged enough to view a video that Cyd Weissman, a colleague of mine at The Jewish Education Project had sent me.  The video depicted a Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, activity like few I had seen before. Students engaged all senses as they walked through their self-created “museum” of remembrance. They would stop to touch a phrase that resonated with them about loss or despair.  They would look at large AV presentations. They would walk through a dangling series of photographs, posters, images. In some ways the content wasn't even what drew my attention. It was the way that the  students interacted with the Shoah in a very real way, and most importantly it was the students themselves who had created this experience for one another – clearly with guidance, but just as clearly without only didactic instruction.

It is true that I believe that the Jewish world is going through a radical change right now. I have referred to it often as a revolution before our eyes – one that we are perhaps too immersed in to fully notice – but a revolution nonetheless. Truth be told I don’t really care if you think of this as an evolution or a revolution but what I have implored institutions to do is to wake up to these changes and demand of educators to open themselves up to the possibilities at this revolution holds rather than be fearful of its pitfalls. Once I labeled this “Innovation or die?” a title that didn’t go down too well, but the sentiment is still there as I refer to it more endearingly, but not any less urgent than, “the innovation imperative.”

I suggest that technology has become to symbolize many of these changes but that they are only representative of the revolution. At  Temple Israel Center it seems that the revolution has taken place – at least in this example of learning that we are fortunate enough to have documented in such a moving way.

1. Who has the power? In 21st century Jewish learning, students and educators must share agency of their learning experience. In the 21st centuries hierarchies and power structures are falling apart  where every person is empowered to become an autonomous learner.

2. What are our core texts? In the 21st century with access to all information, all texts become a part of our canon and I is for us to make meaning and find relevance in that which has most significance in our lives.

3. In the 21st centuries learners are no longer passively sitting by waiting for learning to happen – they are intentionally moving from consumers of the Jewish experience to producers of their own experience s- or more accurately – prosumers of their Jewish learning experiences.

4. Our youth today are universalists, they are Jewish global citizens who know that it is important to be Jewish because that is who they are, but more importantly they believe that being Jewish can indeed make the world a better place in which to live.

5. Our youth today care, and when given the opportunity to do so they shine and excel at a rate far greater and with more impact than ever before. Our twenty-first century Jewish youth are not just our  future they are our present as well.

When you put it all together – a radical change in Jewish hierarchy, our relationship to text, prosumerism, universalism and the power of all to bring about change – we have a revolution in the making. Jewish life and living today is simply not the same as it once was, and more importantly it is not the same as the way it was intended to be when many of our institutions were conceived of and built.

What happened at Temple Israel Center in this short video did not look, swim or quack like the perception that many may have about Hebrew School. It did look , feel and sound like a radically different approach to Jewish education that meets up to the challenge of the radically changing times in which we now live. 

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