By Malka Fleischmann
Some of what unfolded at last week’s first Chicago-based Jewish Futures conference, co-sponsored and executed by our team at The Jewish Education Project and our partners at UpStart, affirmed well-trodden territory in the field of Jewish ed. But some of it, for me, wrenched loose fresh questions about the power balance between teacher and learner or between those who are more literate and those less so.
The central idea being explored – the power of information and how shifting power impacts Jewish education – asked participants to consider the educational implications of current trends and inclinations being expressed among our youth, chiefly the desire to reinvent ritual and create more of a DIY Judaism, one that doesn’t cede all power to traditional curricular materials, sacred text and highly literate teachers.
During a speaker panel featuring Jewishly-engaged students and young professionals, when asked what turns them away from wanting to participate in a Jewish experience, Moishe House Without Walls Program Manager, Liza Moskowitz, explained that the lack of democratization in Jewish education is her personal sticking point. She bemoaned “I know and you don’t” power dynamics and described the way in which her organization seeks to empower all participants and make them feel like they have access to their tradition, regardless of their level of expertise and knowledge. Soon thereafter, another panelist said, “I’ve only once been asked about what I want to learn in high school, and it was the first time I felt a sense of obligation.” And, before the panel’s closing, another student explained that his most passionate exploration of Judaism was through a comparative studies lens, an AP World History course onto which a Jewish Thought curriculum had been mapped.
These, of course, aren’t revelatory or surprising feelings, but, taken together, they had me wondering about the ways in which we generate a sense of access and about the sources of power within our tradition.
When I think about the dynamics at summer camps where, even in the most observant of institutions, it’s not necessarily the most Jewishly literate who are head counselors, but often the most camp-literate, I wonder why we can’t better mimic those dynamics elsewhere. Whether veterans or newbies, the kids who run the show – running their camp communities, however transient they may be – exhibit the most spirit, drive and ideological commitment. They’re not usually or necessarily scholars.
Still, though, there is a literacy curve in camps. One has to know the age-old cheers, the weird traditions, the inside jokes, the nicknamed facilities. But the barrier to entry is lower. And something happens at camps that doesn’t happen across all Jewish communities and in all experiences of Jewish life.
People become the primary content.
In summer camp, there is an unspoken agreement between veterans and newcomers. If you join us, we’ll embrace you.
Many times, throughout my many years at Jewish summer camp, I would watch a doe-eyed outsider enter a summer session quietly and uncertainly and leave as the most popular and beloved staffer, having absorbed inherited camp culture and having won the hearts of fellow staffers and campers by sharing some of his own traditions and cheers. All he had to do in order to find his place was remain open to newness and share of himself. The “text” that all camp attendees then learn becomes the comparative internal study that is the exploration of oneself against and within the strange and wider world of machane.
What makes camp so successful is exactly why that panelist fell passionately in love with Judaism in a comparative studies context. And it is exactly why, when given the opportunity to write his own curriculum in Jewish Studies, the other panelist felt a surge of responsibility towards his learning. All of these opportunities and contexts allow for the dialoguing of one’s own thoughts and intuition with a larger institution or tradition, and, it is that contribution of one’s voice that grants access and a sense of obligation. As if to say, “I, myself, offer a critical, fresh and valued commentary to this established thing. I, myself, am the content.”
To close our conference, we invited Rabbi Benay Lappe to talk about her journey towards establishing SVARA. She defined the word, svara, as moral intuition and went on to quote one of her favorite sayings about education: “As teachers, we think we’re teaching what we know. We hope we’re teaching what we believe. But we can only ever really teach who we are.” Over and over again, Lappe insisted that the key to inviting educational settings was a teacher’s constant assumption that he or she was there as co-learner and that students didn’t assume their teacher knew it all. And, when I asked Lappe how we get the unaffiliated and non-literate through the doors of established or more traditional Jewish settings, she said that people were her best advertisement for the exploratory Talmud study she offers. Once again, people as content.
If we allow people to be the primary content – their lenses and instincts interpreting traditions and texts against the backdrop of our ever-changing wider world cultures – we preserve and reinvent what feels remote and inaccessible. And if we allow people to be the primary content in their exploration of Judaism, no one can ever protest or defer because he or she is not literate enough.
After all, if I, myself, am the content, I am essential to this tradition.
The Jewish Education Project will co-sponsor its next Jewish Futures conference in San Diego on May 30th. To learn more and register click here:
The Jewish Education Project’s national Jewish Futures conferences are made possible through the generous support of the Jim Joseph Foundation.
Malka Fleischmann is the Director of Knowledge and Ideas at the Jewish Education Project.