Does the 21st Century Call for New Goals for Jewish Education?

by Yossi Prager

Innovation is the rage in the Jewish community today, especially as it relates to Jewish identity building and Jewish education (see Jewish New Media Fund, JESNA’s Jewish Futures Conference at the GA and JEP’s DigitalJLearning site). The risk in all the ferment about the medium is that we lose sight of the timelessness of the message. I thought of this especially when reading a new blog post for the URJ Biennial by Dr. Jonathan Woocher.

Jon urges a number of paradigm shifts to reinvent Jewish education. I happily join his call for students to be treated as co-producers and for linking the Jewish educational silos. I dissent from Jon’s call for changing “how we frame the goals of the educational process.” In Jon’s words,

The reigning paradigm for Jewish education has been built around a concept of Jewish identity that sees it as something threatened by the encounter with the wider world. We fear the loss of Jewish identity (”assimilation”), and Jewish education is charged with preventing this loss by making us “more Jewish.” This is a paradigm that had its time and place, but no longer reflects our situation today in North American life, nor, much more importantly, the outlook and aspirations of our learners. The hallmark of successful Jewish education today is the extent to which it can provide learners with resources drawn from the Jewish tradition and from the contemporary Jewish community that help them to live meaningful, purposeful, and fulfilling human lives. Jewishness is a means, not an end in itself, and we must adjust our educational thinking and practice to embrace this shift.

As a matter of marketing, Jon is correct that positive messages are more powerful than arguments from fear, especially when those we are trying to convince do not understand why assimilation is a bad thing. I derive tremendous meaning and purpose from my Jewishness and hope that my children will, too. However, transforming Judaism into a resource bank for leading meaningful human lives twists Judaism inside out by putting the individual in the center, rather than God or the Jewish people. Teachers should inspire young Jews to a life of responsibility, loyalty and service. They should help young adults understand that the Torah provides the moral strength and compass to enable us to strive for transcendence even when that requires us to be counter-cultural – standing apart from the tyranny of the culturally ascendant values of the day. Jewish education succeeds only where it instills a deep attachment to the Jewish people and the State of Israel even when peers find it “meaningful” to boycott the Jewish State.

The Talmud rules that of all the vessels in the Tabernacle constructed by Moses in the desert, only the trumpets had to be refashioned in later generations. A teacher of mine, Rabbi Simcha Kraus, explained that trumpets are a medium for conveying a message. The medium changes over time as society evolves. The message – and the mission of the Jewish people – remain eternal.

Yossi Prager is Executive Director of Avi Chai North America.

cross-posted to The Avi Chai Foundation blog.