The Amphibious Jew Project of the Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood: A Call for Continued Fresh Thinking about “old” Issues of Jewish Continuity
By Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Schein
The great scholars of feminist epistemology of the 1980’s and 1990’s – people like Mary Belenke and Carol Gilligan – loved to remind people that all “knowing” is “situated knowing. I’d like to very carefully underscore the context of my “knowing” regarding the “call to action” manifesto being discussed in so many recent eJP articles.
My “knowing” is linked to 24 years in the Cleveland Jewish community, the grandparent of the continuity commissions of the 1990’s. It is shaped by watching slow, steady, important progress on the challenges of Jewish continuity still present enough to spawn the ongoing controversy about the 2013 Pew Report. At least eight of the ten initiatives developed by the Commission on Jewish Continuity (1989) continue to bring educational blessings to the Cleveland community. This makes me suspicious of claims to have not moved forward at all Jewish life as I have seen the forward movement up close in Cleveland.
My knowing is shaped by the intellectual and spiritual underpinnings of the methodology of social and organizational change known as appreciative inquiry, an approach pioneered at Case Western University in Cleveland. This makes me sensitive to a tonal quality in the call to action that starts with problems rather than assets and faintly echoes the chant of Jews as the “ever-dying people.”
My knowing is shaped by a strong sense that the skein of infinitives in the ahava rabbah prayer “to learn, and to teach, to do, to treasure, to enact and preserve” point to an iterative process that breeds humility and continued experimentation about what we know. Specifically this leads me to be respectfully critical of an underlying assumption of the “call to action” that we already know what works and only need to invest more resources to maximize the effects of these “proven” results.
All these forces suggest to me that we are still in need of the expansive gifts of the Hebrew Lev – heart , mind, and imagination – in regard to our educational future as well as manifestos for intensive investment of resources to replicate our successes.
Meet Froggy: The Amphibious Jew
This leads me to my new work as the senior consultant for Jewish education at the Mordecai Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. The educational dimensions of the new center have been generously funded by Reconstructionist leaders, rabbinic friends and colleagues, Northeast Ohio philanthropic foundations, and members of Kol Ha Lev, the Reconstructionist community of Cleveland.
One of the projects of the center is the “amphibious Jew” project. It reflects a long “romance” with a single idea from Adin Steinsaltz that was channeled to me by my colleague Rabbi Barbara Penzner. I believe this idea can help us reframe some of the ways we understand what counts as an effective educational response to the Pew report.
The following observation of Adin Steinsaltz made at a Jerusalem shiur suggests what I hope is a fresh way of framing a design for our educational future.
All creatures live in water. The difference between sea creatures and land creatures is that land animals draw the water into themselves.
This link will provide a fuller explication of the educational implications of such a metaphor. In his volume Simple Words, Steinsaltz evokes meanings for the spiritual life of a person that stretch beyond what I sketch below.
Briefly, my own educational midrash is that Steinsaltz’s epigram suggests that there are two vital dimensions to our best educational work. One is marine. Engagement is the major trope of this work. It points to the importance of immersive venues where one can experience Judaism naturally and organically. It is aligned with much of what we have learned works in Jewish education in venues such as camp, Israel trips, and retreats.
The other mode is mammalian where Jews consciously journey to the house of their friends, their synagogues and communities to experience a very mindful Judaism that can guide them in creating spiritual meaning, make important Jewish decisions, and make contributions to tikkun olam, world transformation. Meaning making is its major trope. It is aligned with many of the successes of congregational transformation projects, Gen Next “boutique” philanthropy, and service learning.
Since each of these modes of Jewish existence has deep value and importance it is critical that Jews have access to each. Neither the mammalian, self-guiding Jew nor the marine Jew for whom Judaism is as natural as a fish swimming in water can alone do our work. What we need is to guide the next generation in becoming amphibious creatures who can alternately live in both land and water Jewish environments. This amphibious sensibility requires both a set of pedagogic skills within the Jewish classrooms and a more refined planning sensibility of the blend of educational experiences across a life-time as a Jewish learner. It also requires a holistic model of Jewish learning and living, a model which we are presently designing at the Kaplan center.
Much of the vigorous and productive exchanges in eJewish Philanthropy over the two years since the Pew report can be grouped under these two poles of “engagement/identity – spirituality/meaning making.” My suggestion here is that we need to explore the hyphen that links these two. I believe there are pathways that lead us from engagement to meaning making and equally and reciprocally from meaning making to deeper engagement. Naming and understanding those pathways is a creative educational and planning challenge.
I end this article by humbly offering my friend Froggy, the amphibious Jew, as one of many guides to such explorations.
Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Schein is the Senior Education Consultant at the Mordecai Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. He is also director of “Text Me: Judaism and Technology,” a joint project of the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and The Covenant Foundation.