By Faith Leener
[This article is the first in a series written by participants in the inaugural Senior Educators Cohort at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.]
In the first seminar of the M²: Institute for Experiential Jewish Education Senior Educators Cohort (SEC), we discussed how as experiential Jewish educators, we are constantly striving to strike the balance between enabling self-exploration and having pre-determined outcomes in our educational programs. We posed the question, “As educators, are we encouraging our learners to explore, wherever it may lead them?” Or rather, “Do we have a pre-determined place, idea, or concept that we want them to arrive at?” When it comes to millennial Jewish education, I have noticed a shift over the past years toward the former, encouraging young adults to “make their own meaning” out of every Jewish experience, no matter what that meaning may be. And in my role as a founder of Base Hillel and as an educator at Base BKLYN, I strongly believe that a disproportionate shift toward self-exploration is a disservice to the students and young professionals that we serve. Moreover, this shift often represents our own insecurity as educators, and a lack of trust in our learners.
When considering why the shift toward maximal self-exploration has occurred in Jewish programming, there are several ideas we can explore. To start, most millennials, myself included, came of age in a time of intense “political correctness” in America, with an increasing emphasis on inclusivity, embracing differences, and accepting fluid identities related to gender, sexual orientation, and others, including religion. This expansive mindset and unceasing access to information has made much of our generation sensitive – sometimes hyper-sensitive – to the use of language, to the egalitarian nature or lack thereof of spaces, and has cultivated a sharp eye for hypocrisy or inauthenticity. Understandably, educators have adjusted their lessons to be more expansive, more open, and less prescriptive. Moreover, perhaps they have been driven by the pervasive fear that millennials might leave the Jewish world if they perceive that Jewish programs and organizations are “too Jewish,” that Judaism is being forced down their throats, or that it is too dogmatic.
One byproduct of this fear is the emphasis these educators place on the centrality of one’s own personal “Jewish journey” as a base for one’s ever-evolving Jewish identity. But as my teacher and founder of M², Shuki Taylor, has astutely pushed me, “But does this Jewish Journey have a destination? And furthermore, do we as educators have a responsibility to lead our learners, on their Jewish Journey, toward a destination?”
Self-exploration, like Jewish life, has no end, it never “stops.” But pre-determination, also like Jewish life, does have milestones and destinations, and as educators we have the responsibility to guide our learners toward destinations that we know and feel to be of value. This generation is already in a transient, “journeying” phase, moving from city to city, from one to job to the next, from work to a graduate program, from swiping left to swiping right. Why as educators do we feel that what seekers need is more seeking, more journeying? Perhaps what they need most now in their lives is not another journey, but rather a destination, a place they can call home, and set of beliefs that can ground them.
This is what I believe we are offering at Base. Base Hillel is a movement of young rabbinical families reimagining their rabbinates. We meet Jews where they are physically: in our neighborhoods at a coffee shop or the corner bar, and in our homes over Shabbat dinner and intimate learning groups ranging on topics from the weekly parsha, to the Syrian refugee crisis, to mussar and mindfulness. But we also aim to meet people where they are emotionally and spiritually: with their non-Jewish partner, or with their struggle with organized religion, with their feeling of loneliness or broken heartedness, with their new job and accomplishments, and with their opinions, disagreements, and questions.
But we don’t just sit back and listen, letting them go on seeking and questioning endlessly. In response, we share stories from our own lives, and offer perspectives from Jewish tradition. We try to guide them as much as we can using the depth of resources we collectively have in pastoral training, rabbinic training, nonprofit management, and social work. We try to be as authentic and honest when asked our opinion as we can be, even if our learners might disagree. We trust that through our own authenticity, they can hear something different from their own way of thinking, without feeling judged or indoctrinated. We work hard and strive to be educators that allow them to feel safe enough to actually look at themselves, at the world, at the text, at us, and to engage, wrestle, question, refute, disagree, and reimagine.
At Base, and in general when working with young adults, we must create space both for self-exploration and pre-determined outcomes. We can be unabashedly pluralist, create diverse environments with people of varying practices and beliefs, and still offer boundaries, traditions, and a specific way of seeing the world. In fact, we must do this. As Jewish professionals, it is not enough to help our learners make meaning out of Jewish values, we must offer them specific Jewish values to grapple with that we as educators think are important. At Base, we belief deeply in the value of home but we are not trying to encourage Basers to create the same type of home we have created with our partners, rather, we are asking them to consider, what grounds them? What makes a home? What are the foundations that will give their life meaning, purpose and joy? And the only way we can authentically engage them in these questions, is by offering our own answers and perspectives.
We must have enough faith in ourselves, in the text, and in our learners, to share our Torah, the Talmud, our tradition, conflicting commentaries, ancient and contemporary interpretations. We must experiment with communal prayers and rituals that feel foreign in today’s I-centered society. We must trust our learners, no matter their background, to enter the great Jewish conversation that has been going on for years. Millennials don’t want a watered-down version of Judaism. They want the real thing, with all of its contradiction and complexity, with its irony, humor, and poetry. Because of the expansive and fluid mindset that has shaped our upbringing, millennials are perhaps more suited than ever to deal with the paradox, tension, and complexity that pervade Jewish text, tradition, and ritual.
Faith Leener is co-founder of Base Hillel, senior educator at Base BKLYN, and the Eleanor Meyerhoff Katz Innovation Fellow at Penn Hillel and Hillel’s Office of Innovation. She a participant in the inaugural Senior Educators Cohort (SEC) at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.
Applications are now open for Cohort 2 of the Senior Educators Cohort. For more information and to request an application visit www.ieje.org.