A Response to Paul Steinberg’s The Redemption of Hebrew School Redux

by Michelle Shapiro Abraham, MAJE

From the first moment that we read “And God spoke and the world came to be,” we Jews have known the power of language. As it was with the creation of the world, so too it is with Jewish Education – we need a language to explain, define and push us to be reflective practitioners who are forever reimagining, reframing, and reclaiming our tradition.

In Paul Steinberg’s article The Redemption of Hebrew School Redux, he reminds us that “we need to reclaim the spirit of Jewish Education.” I don’t believe there is a synagogue educator, myself included, who would disagree with him. The quest to impact families, touch adults, and inspire students to not only learn about, but actually become our story, is at the heart of what we do every day. Steinberg is right though – when we are “scrambling to grasp the frayed fringes of impossible demographics and sociology” we sometimes lose sight of this and need to return to the heart of what we do. His point is well taken.

Steinberg closes his article by posing the question “What makes for excellent and meaningful Jewish education that endures within the minds, hearts, down to the very souls of our students?” Again, he is right. This is the question that so many of us are asking. However, he then, sadly, rejects the voices of those who are working towards answers for a new generation and crafting the languages to help us understand, analyze and take action. These voices are coming from all over the Jewish world – synagogues, schools, colleges and yes, camps.

The data from the Foundation for Jewish Camp helped prove that overnight camp successfully impacts Jewish identity (as defined by a series of Jewish identity markers in their groundbreaking study Camp Works). Empowered with this data and the insights of many great educators, Jewish camp professionals have striven to understand why camp works. Is it merely that camp is a 24 hour a day experience as Steinberg implies? Is it as simple as experiential/informal teaching styles? What everyone from the secular camping world, to camp directors, to us Jewish Camp Consultants will tell you is that it is actually a complex set of intentionally crafted strategies that range from relationship building to teachable moments, from rituals to interactive and personally challenging programming. It is a language driven by youth outcomes and inspired by kids who begin as nine year old campers and return as 20 year old staff members.

The language of the camp world – the language that many of us are exploring for its relevancy to synagogue life and education – pushes us to see our work through a different lens. Like the language of the many “change initiatives” that are currently at work in the Jewish world, the language of camp gives us tools for understanding, defining, evaluating, and going beyond mere inspiration. Do these change initiatives create something that has never existed before? Ecclesiastes was right – there is nothing new under the sun. However, often when we use a new language and are open to new approaches, we see our work differently and understand new possibilities.

The Rabbis knew that merely saying that each of us should feel as if he/she went forth from Egypt was not sufficient if indeed we were to become the story. So they created the language of the Hagaddah, the ritual of the seder, the multi-generational game of the four questions and the recipes (or at least their wives did) that we pass down from generation to generation. Like them, we know that simply saying that one should feel connected is not enough. We need the language, the techniques, and the revolutionary ideas to help us change inspiring words into daily reality.

Steinberg is right. We can’t let ourselves get overly caught up in the financials and demographics. We need to avoid “shiny fads,” and ensure that our education has depth, meaning and relevancy. He is right that this task should not fall on the shoulders of Jewish Educators alone – it is a task demanded of all of us. However, it is also a task where mere inspiration is not sufficient and what he dismisses as “shiny fads” can be roadmaps for understanding what we do and techniques for actually creating what we dream.

Ours is a task that requires us to hold tight to our tradition, and to embrace modern approaches of evaluation and project design; a task that demands us to reclaim what we already know and to reimagine revolutionary techniques and approaches that are beyond our knowledge; it is a task that invites us to take joy in the community sitting beside us, and demands that we reach toward others who are not at the table. We need to embrace what we are learning in every change process, in every conversation, and in every setting. We need to listen to every word and push ourselves to understand new languages and new ideas.

This task of simultaneously living in the past and being visionaries for the future is not too difficult for us, nor is it out of our reach. Indeed, it is what we Jewish Educators have always done – from generation to generation, continuously creating and recreating.

Michelle Shapiro Abraham is a graduate of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC-JIR. She currently serves a consultant for the Foundation for Jewish Camp Incubator and Nadiv projects, and is the author of the Reform Movement’s new Mishkan T’fillah for Children and the CHAI curriculum Family Education materials. In addition to her consulting and writing work, Michelle has served as a synagogue educator for over fifteen years.