Of Blintzes and Jewish Education

by Dr. Gil Graff

Many years ago, I read an anecdote about a poor, Russian Jew, circa 1880, who heard from his more affluent acquaintances that blintzes are delicious. Never having tasted a blintz, he asked his wife – the cook in the family – to prepare a meal of blintzes. “Blintzes,” she replied: “Blintzes require eggs, and we have no eggs.” “Skip the eggs, then,” the blintz-curious husband suggested. “But blintzes require milk,” said his pragmatic spouse. “Use water,” proposed the husband. “But blintzes are filled with fruit, or cheese or potatoes,” said the incredulous wife, “and we have nothing with which to fill blintzes.” “Skip the filling, then,” replied the husband. “But blintzes are made with fine, sifted flour, and we have only coarse meal,” said the wife. “Just make blintzes with the ingredients we have on hand,” implored the husband. When, an hour later, the man tasted “blintzes” made of coarse flour and water, he exclaimed: “I don’t understand what people find so appealing about blintzes!”

The same phenomenon attaches to Jewish education. Those who experience Jewish learning in its breadth and depth are likely to find the taste quite remarkable; those for whom “Jewish education” is an amalgam of insubstantial ingredients wonder at the significance others associate with it. Happily, immersive experiences of Jewish living and learning (beyond the home) for children and youth abound, in an expanding array of settings, from camps to schools, Israel programs, youth groups, and more.

Recently, I spoke with a professional colleague holding an international leadership position in an organization that invests significantly in Jewish education. This very impressive and dedicated individual asked me whether – looking to the coming 20 years – I considered it strategically wiser to invest in informal Jewish education or in formal Jewish education. I challenged the dichotomy, observing that effective, informal Jewish education involves well-structured Jewish educational experiences and that schools recognize that non-formal, experiential learning and family engagement are essential to the success of their mission.

My colleague pressed, however, pointing to the need for strategic investment decisions. I recalled my years as Director of a summer camp that identified itself as a “religious, educational, Hebrew camp.” Campers – who enjoyed a variety of experiential learning opportunities over the course of 4 or 8 week sessions – were expected to (and did) participate in “formal” Jewish study during the school year. For those communities lacking in settings of Jewish study, provisions were made for interactive, distance learning. Jewish education is multi-faceted, I averred, and we should encourage diverse Jewish learning experiences, mindful that these experiences must be meaningful to the particular learners engaged in them.

Still, my interlocutor persisted, asking whether I would place my bet on “informal” or “formal” Jewish education. Referring to a photograph just outside the office showing thousands of young Jews gathered at a certain hall for a particular event, I commented that the enduring vitality of Jewish life depends on a level of learning that extends beyond cursory engagement. There are, to be sure, experiences that can serve as catalysts for deeper Jewish educational engagement, but strategic investment must provide participants access to blintzes and not, merely, something of related form, lacking substance. The filling of blintzes can and should vary according to taste (i.e., learner needs and interests), but we ought not content ourselves with thin, empty crepes. Strategic investment – and the future of Jewish life – demands no less.

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.

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  1. Kate says

    Dear Gil, your article is economically and beautifully written. Many of us ask this question in a field that has increasingly become “either/or” instead of “both/and.” Learning is everywhere in the right hands is both nourishing and tasty.

  2. Chaim Lauer says

    Well said and spot on.

    The dichotomy is educationally false. A more educationally sound approach requires an integrated ladder of learning and living, living and learning. The educational strategy is less important than the educational goal that should drive decision making. Simply we should recognize that we as Jews do not believe in “either/ or,” but rather in “both/ and!!!!”

    The bagel story reminded me of what I used to say: The problem of Jewish education in America is sentimentally based on a popular Jewish baking product. It continues to be very much like a bagel — no matter how much dough you throw at it, it still has a hole in the middle. We should use the bially as the model. Jewish education must have tasty content in the middle and must be something you can and want to chew on.

    Otherwise it devolves to a minimalism based on fun and short term numbers rather than a maximal approach that aspires to create an informed and interested Jew within a learning and learned community,

  3. says

    What troubles me about this story is that there is still vast confusion over settings vs methods. I’ve blogged about this before (both on the BJELA website and the JewishGPS blog http://jewishgps.wordpress.com/2012/10/05/formal-learning-at-informal-limmud/), but in short summary – an educator can use informal methods in formal settings and formal methods in informal settings. I would suggest to the philanthropist involved to consider investing in training educators in BOTH settings on how to integrate informal and experience-based methods into their curricula. Investing in educator training and not in the settings themselves (as his question suggests), gives all learners more opportunities for rich learning experiences.