A Skunk Works for the Project of the Jewish People: A New Paradigm for Jewish Education:
Idea #9

By Dr. Bill Robinson

Over the last eight weeks, I explored the emerging characteristics of a new paradigm for Jewish education. This last article in the series will explore the idea of the Jewish people in light of this new paradigm for Jewish education. I began with Jon Woocher’s (z”l) challenge to us:

Twentieth-century Jewish education was designed to answer the question, ‘How can we ensure that individuals remain “good” Jews, even as they become good (and successful) Americans?’ [Today] Jewish education must respond to a subtly, but significantly, different question: ‘How can we help Jews draw on and use their Jewishness to live more meaningful, fulfilling, and responsible lives?’

Woocher asks us to take seriously 20th century progressive education in the context of Jewish learning in the 21st century, foremost by beginning with the experience and desires of the learner in mind. Only then do we seek to nurture the learners’ relationship to our shared and diverse Jewish heritage, as a resource for leading lives of well-being and co-creating a just and caring world.

The story of the Jewish people can offer meaning and purpose by grounding and elevating learners’ personal stories in a transcendent narrative that stretches across the millennia. Yet, as I wrote in the last article:

[T]here are many stories of the Jewish people; it is open-ended and multi-vocal. It is constantly being written. As educators, our job is to invite our learners to add their voices, to re-tell the stories of the Jewish people as the past continually unfolds into the present. The purpose of Jewish education is not to nurture a sense of belonging so much as the purpose is to help our learners discover themselves already a part of the never-ending story.

But, what is the Jewish people whose story we ask our learners to see themselves within?

Idea #9 is: The Jewish People are a multigenerational, network of neighborhoods engaged in the project of fulfilling the Covenant.

Professor Noam Pianko has critically and lucidly explored the concept of Jewish Peoplehood, which has become arguably the most prominent way by which Jews see themselves (despite all their differences) as a unified group. Relying on new scholarship in the social sciences, he shows the ways in which the concept of Jewish Peoplehood has been socially constructed over time. How we see ourselves as a people has changed radically across the millennia. Only in modern times have we come to view ourselves primarily, through the lens of “Peoplehood” which has become inexorably linked (despite some efforts to the contrary) to the notion of the “nation” and ethnic nationalism.

Premodern religious communities like Judaism viewed the world through a mythic lens that conflated the past and present. The present was understood through a cosmic narrative that connected particular events to broader themes. Nationalism introduced a shift away from each individual viewing him/herself as part of a cosmic theological narrative of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. Instead, the nation [and thus the people] is conceived as a collective secular group that marches forward over time, developing its particular characteristics and shaping tis historical milieu.

As Pianko summarizes, “the effort of modern groups to link themselves to premodern groups belies the fact that premodern groups themselves related to groupness very differently!

I’m not going to offer a critique of Jewish Peoplehood here. Rather, along with Pianko, I will just share the good news that if this notion of the Jewish people has been continually reconstructed over time, we can work to offer a new understanding – one that is better suited to our global era.

My vision for peoplehood in a new key, then, revolves around three pillars: a greater stress on Jewish, a shift from nationhood to neighborhood networks, and an emphasis on project rather than people.

This reconceptualization allows for greater diversity; it even calls for it, as each metaphorical “neighborhood” seeks for its own solutions to fulfilling the project of the Jewish people. Yet, we are united by a shared project (or purpose) and an ever-evolving heritage that we call upon in fulfillment of that project. While Pianko stops short of describing this project, I will suggest what may seem obvious to many readers: the project is the fulfillment of the Covenant between the God (Sacred Presence) and the Jewish people. Jews will have different ideas as to what constitutes that Covenant, how to fulfill it, and thus what we should be doing as Jews. That’s precisely Pianko’s point. However, without the Covenant, as JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen and others have argued, there is no Jewish people.

Thus, I offer a final principle or defining characteristic of this new paradigm for Jewish education: Covenantal Peoplehood. It was not one of the specific points on the jewel image that emerged from the Fellowship in Educating for Applied Jewish Wisdom. Rather, it is the context in which the jewel sits, or it’s the entirety of the jewel. Either way, it’s what learners come to understand if and when they experience a Jewish education that offers the other six defining characteristics in relation to one another (as has been explored in the prior eight articles). In other words, as educators, we don’t begin with the covenant or the Jewish people. Rather we begin with the learner’s own desires and experiences. Then, as they learn to Author their Selves through Practicing Jewish in ways that Cultivate the Dispositions needed to Be in Relationships (of wellbeing), Presence the Sacred, and CoCreate (a just and caring) World, they come to find themselves in need of and already within the project of Covenantal Peoplehood. To put it more simply, through the educational process they discover that their personal desires to thrive in their life (and create a thriving world) require their participation in a multi-generational, neighborhood-networked project grounded in Jewish traditions.

Simply consider the following propositions: My own personal well-being requires that I find myself in a community (a neighborhood) where I am known, respected, and cared for. As the truism goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.” Moreover, as we are increasingly becoming aware, our individual well-being requires that the world around us remains healthy. We live in an increasingly inter-connected and fragile world, where the well-being of one person is closely tied to the well-being of all other persons (animals, plants, and the whole planetary ecosystem).

Furthermore, in this rapidly changing world, yesterday’s solutions often do not work. Thus, we need to be constantly experimenting, discovering, and seeking. All of us need to be lifelong learners, learning from one another and adapting practices from our tradition in ways that make them more effective. And, since this work will continue long after we are gone, we need to continually replenish the tradition of our people so those who come after do not start from scratch. In the educational process, as learners experience the interconnectivity of well-being and as they Author Their Selves into the story of the Jewish people, they discover (and hopefully commit themselves to) the vital importance of Covenantal Peoplehood.

As mentioned above, the new paradigm very much begins with the learner in mind, following in the tradition of progressive education from Dewey onward. However, this is not a consumerist approach. Its purpose is not primarily to fulfill the short-term needs of the learner, whatever they may be. It does recognize that to engage the learner educationally, you need to take cognizance and often respond to those immediate needs. Yet, the new paradigm understands that learners most often do not know what they want – to have, to do, to become. They do not know what it truly means or what it will take to “thrive” in life. Rather, through experiencing and experimenting with the texts, rituals, and other practices of the Jewish tradition, if done well, they discover wisdom that will inform and guide them in this life-long endeavor.

This wisdom, to use a Clayton Christensen phrase, enables them to “get the job done” that they see as needing done today. Yet, more so, it helps them to gain an understanding of the jobs they truly desire to do with their life. As three students of Christensen note, in Jobs to Be Done:

All over the world, people go about their days getting things done. Much of what they do is aimed at satisfying a collection of short- and long-term objectives that they see as being related to their well-being. The many decisions that they make throughout the day – which toothpaste to use, whether to drink coffee or tea, what product to buy for their company – are all part of satisfying these objectives, as each person defines them.

But what if people know only part of what they want? Or – even more radical – what if they don’t really understand why they want what they want? While such confusion at first glance seems like a recipe for innovation disaster, it is precisely in this knowledge gap where opportunities for new growth exist.

Perhaps, instead of growing frustrated over the declining rates of participation in traditional Jewish practices, we should embrace the opportunity we have through Jewish education to adapt Judaism in ways that help Jews get the jobs done they seek to do, and help them understand what they truly seek and need to do.

Jewish education can be the skunk works for the project of Covenantal Peoplehood, as learners across diverse (though connected) “neighborhoods” explore our rich heritage and innovate the ways in which it can help them to lead flourishing lives, while redeeming and repairing the world. We have an amazing and vital “growth opportunity” before us! We need only see abundance instead of scarcity, embrace risk instead of security, desire empowerment (of learners) instead of control (of the lesson), seek unchartered territories instead of the known landscape, accept that as educators we do not have all the answers and are also learners on a journey, and be willing to trust in ourselves and the future, “letting go to let come.”

As we approach the Passover seder this week, consider what it means to fulfill the mitzvah of “seeing oneself as though one personally came forth from Egypt.” How do we teach the child to do so? As the traditional haggadah offers, do we praise the child that wants to know “What are the testimonies, statutes, and judgments that the Lord our God has commanded you?” And, do we admonish the child who asks “What is this worship to you?” seeing them as rejecting membership in the Jewish People?

Perhaps, we need to flip this scenario upside down, privileging the child who sees the whole Exodus as problematic and one’s membership in the Jewish people as an open question. This is what the progressive educational philosopher, Paulo Freire, writing in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, would ask of us. He contrasts a “banking” approach to education with what he calls “conscientization.” In the former, the goal of education is to put (bank) knowledge into students’ heads. In contrast, the latter approach empowers and guides the learner to see the world as socially constructed and problematically unjust and, thus, as social relations that need repair.

Perhaps the “wicked” child is actually seeking to find his/her/their place within a story (that at first glance) does not seem to speak to them. In that case, we should respond first with listening and then with wonder – re-imagining together what may have happened, perhaps re-capturing parts of the story that got left out over the millennia? Affirming the problematic nature of the story of our people is a necessary first step to re-telling that story in ways that re-connect us all to the shared project of Covenantal Peoplehood.

As educators and as parents, do we want our children just to know what to do according to the prescribed traditions? Or do we want them to be creative participants in the Jewish project of co-creating a just and caring world (and, in so doing, renewing our traditions)? Do we want their compliance or commitment? Do we want their conformity or creativity, as the future of this world lies increasing in the balance and our traditions do not (yet) have all the answers? For me, the answer is clear; the challenge is making the journey together across a partially glimpsed landscape into an uncertain future.

These last nine weeks have presented me with the opportunity to articulate the defining aspects of a new paradigm for Jewish education that address Jon Woocher’s challenge. I take full responsibility for all errors but must grant immense credit to the scholars and educators of the Fellowship for Educating for Applied Jewish Wisdom, whom together developed this new framework. They are: Erica Aren, Ilana Gleicher-Bloom, Suzanne Bojdak, Yonatan Brafman, Gretchen Marks Brandt, Aaron Dorfman, Lizzi Heydemann, Beth Huppin, Jeff Kress, Rebecca Epstein-Levy, Rebecca Minkus-Lieberman, Deborah Miller, Alisha Pedowitz, Jane Shapiro, Michael Shire, and Adam Weisberg. Much thanks also goes to our partners at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and the William Davidson Foundation.

Dr. Bill Robinson is the dean of the William Davidson Graduate School ofJewish Education of JTS.