Can We Disrupt Religious School? – A Response

By Beverly Socher-Lerner

In “Can We Disrupt Religious School?” Cousens is distressed over supplementary Jewish education’s inability to “get that much done.” At the same time, she acknowledges the need to disrupt but stops short of saying how to do that.

Here are a few places I think we could start:

1. Move away from a model where “getting it done” is a goal unto itself.

Instead, let’s take seriously John Dewey’s articulation that the learning process is only completed when we are in contexts where we can apply our learning. Let’s create Jewish learning environments where our students and their families are part of a culture where they get to practice what they learn and where their habits are distinctively communal and Jewish in nature.

At Makom Community, a daily afterschool enrichment program in Philadelphia, our students are in the habit of listing all the steps they can imagine of how the food we’re about to eat came to be on the table in front of us. Then they recite a traditional bracha in Hebrew. They know what the words mean in Hebrew, and they make meaning of it anew every day. They actualize what they learn.

2. Facilitate learning experiences that evoke passion and connection.

Allow learners to make meaning both personally and as part of a community. That community is both the global Jewish community and all of the Jewish people who have lived in all periods of history. Connecting our students now to the conversations emebedded within Jewish tradition before us allows them to connect to the generations before us.

3. Build up joyful, creative people who know they can meaningfully contribute to the Jewish community. With a nuanced and intentional way to interact with Jewish life, they will find meaning and continue to shape the Jewish world in a way that works for them.

That means taking on tough stuff – living Judaism out loud, in front of our students and their families. Last week, I was walking my students from the elementary school where I pick them up every day, and there was a group of middle school students at a bus stop gathered around and kicking another student. I stopped, my students’ hands in mine, and demanded, “Let him up.” They insisted that they were playing, and it was okay. I told them, “That’s not how we play. I cannot leave until I see that you’re all okay.” They let him up, and we all walked away.

But then my students needed to process:

“Beverly, why did you stop?” “What just happened?” “How did you get them to stop?” “How did you know that wasn’t okay?”

We’d just finished studying, “Love your neighbor as yourself. (Vayikra 19:18) And I reflected back to our students: That boy, in fact, all of those children are our neighbors. That was the only way I could figure out how to love them. I had to make sure they were all safe. We had to help. It was how we could be holy right now, today.

So Beth Cousens, let’s throw away our checklists of things that need to get done and instead focus on the kind of people and community we want to grow, and build our learning experiences around that, both the ones we can plan and the ones we can’t.

Beverly Socher-Lerner is Founding Director of Makom Community.