Educating Toward Change and Fairness

Screen capture: from the exhibit “Echoes of Jewish Wisdom,” hosted at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City. Painting by Nicole Emanuel, 1995.

By Elana Stein Hain, Joshua Ladon and Sarah Mulhern

We need education rooted in Jewish wisdom in order to reset our attitudes and systems and to foster a healthier Jewish organizational ecosystem. And we are starting a program to begin that process.

This year, the Shalom Hartman Institute of North American will pilot the Created Equal Educators Fellowship, a national cohort for senior Jewish educators, supported by the Safety, Respect, and Equity Coalition (SRE). This fellowship will be informed by the work of Created Equal: Gender and the Ethics of Shared Leadership, a research and education project which brings Jewish thought into conversation with the challenges around power and leadership, with a specific focus on gender. The fellowship will explore how Jewish wisdom can offer guidance and values to inform our struggle to pursue the ethical as well as how to think about and teach Jewish text today in light of evolving understandings of what equity entails.

We live in a Jewish community which aspires to ethical leadership, and yet our communal structures and actions are often found wanting. This is evidenced by recurring scandal and misuse of power and persistent inequities around gender. These gaps between our values and our lived experience pose grave challenges to the moral integrity of our community. This reality demands new ways of acting and thinking.

If we wish to imbue our communal infrastructure with equity and integrity we must insist of new ways of acting and of thinking. We need new procedures and policies – but we must also take the time for conversation, and learning, the time to truly grapple with the ethics of how our communities function. We must make the time to study and debate the big questions at the root of these recurrent challenges – including the relationship between tradition and innovation, change and loss, and means and ends. If we do not consider Jewish thought regarding equity and respect, leadership and change – even and especially when it is troubling – how can we learn from it?

It is for this reason, we propose education – taking a step back to get perspective on these issues – in addition to policy changes. And moreover, we propose Jewish education – a dialogue between Jewish tradition and our present challenges – as a way to live up to our aspirations. What does Jewish tradition have to say about the link between power and corruption? What might Jewish text offer us for understanding how leadership images change over time? How can deep study of Jewish sources help us to consider the tensions involves in trying to actualize our values more consistently? What examples in Jewish thought can help us consider how to relate our community’s actions to our community’s ethics?

Our partners in this initiative the Safety, Respect, and Equity Coalition envision Jewish communal and professional spaces which are safe, respectful and equitable. And we at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America wish to root this vision in transformative study. As an institute dedicated to the significance of ideas for shaping Jewish life today, we believe that it is crucial for Jewish organizations and leaders to ask how Jewish concepts and discussion throughout the ages can inform our thinking as we craft our communal environment. Delving deeply into Torah to address questions from our contemporary milieu – learning, debating, and arguing new ideas – can inspire us not only to think differently but to act differently. This is indeed what it means to live by our Jewish values.

Dr. Elana Stein Hain is Scholar in Residence and Director of Faculty; Rabbi Joshua Ladon is West Coast Director of Education; and Rabbi Sarah Mulhern is the Manager of Rabbinic and Lay Education for Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.