TED Talks meets ancient Jewish wisdom

How can Judaism be more relevant to our students today?

In Short

In a time of such vitriolic partisanship, let’s teach our students a different way to think about the world — a way that is not colored in red and blue. The wisdom and ethics found in Jewish tradition extends far beyond the synagogue and can guide us in each aspect of our lives.

We are surrounded, every day, by noise. There are pundits on the right, and pundits on the left. The media environment can feel exhausting, and not only that, but our identities can become exclusively defined by our political views. If we are conservative, then we think this about the world. If we are liberal, then we think this about the world.

Of course, people don’t actually say these words out loud. Instead, we all (or so many of us) fall into a trap of thinking a certain way without realizing we’ve gotten so caught up in our own political bubbles. It can be hard to think clearly about any given topic.

We are two Jewish educators with different backgrounds. One of us grew up Modern Orthodox, spent years in a Jewish day school and yeshiva, and now oversees education and content at a Jewish education and media company. The other grew up Reform, did not attend Jewish day school and received rabbinical ordination in the Conservative movement.

Notwithstanding these differences in upbringing, as Jewish educators, we believe that our students need tools to navigate this politically polarized environment. We wanted to give them a different way to think about the world — a way that is not colored in red and blue, but driven by religious thought, or in the case of the Jewish tradition, by Jewish values and Jewish thought.

Does Judaism have anything to say about our lives or about the world around us? From the widest lens, what is the purpose of Jewish education? Is it only relevant to teaching about ritual observance, Jewish law and faith? Many of us tend to think that religion is for the synagogue, mosque or church, but not for the home, workplace or grocery store. When it comes to Judaism, we are excellent compartmentalizers.

Judaism can tell us which food is kosher and how to observe Shabbat, this line of thinking goes. But when it comes to the major disagreement we have with our neighbor, how to progress in our careers or deciding what to wear every morning? We tend to look elsewhere.

What if we chose to focus on Jewish thought and values, and how they pertain to our everyday lives? In an era of maximal autonomy, Jewish values can play a critical role in guiding us to make individual decisions we all confront every day.

What if we were to look to Jewish tradition to guide us on whether to grant someone forgiveness, how to engage with someone who sees the world radically differently from the way we do, why and how we should give to those in need, or why we should love and what love is all about? Of course, Judaism is very much about the synagogue, rituals, and observance of the 613 mitzvot, but it’s also about so much more.

In a world in which religious structures and synagogue affiliation are very different than they were prior to COVID-19, we need to ask ourselves how we can truly motivate our young people to see Judaism as relevant to them. How can we effectively engage them, beyond the rationale “because I said so and your great grandparents did this too”?

Unpacked for Educators and OpenDor Media is excited to announce a new video series, podcast series, and educational curriculum called “The Power of Judaism” that addresses this challenge. We created this curriculum to help our students see how the wisdom of Judaism and the spirituality of connecting to God extends far beyond the synagogue — this wisdom and ethics can guide us in each aspect of our lives.

We brought our different experiences and backgrounds from growing up in the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Movements to developing this curriculum. In collaborating on this, our goal is to help all students and all educators — regardless of background — understand the relevance of Judaism to their everyday lives.

Inspired by the vision and teachings of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt’l, who sought to make Judaism relevant to everyone’s lives, this curriculum takes students on a journey to discover how Jewish tradition answers questions like:

  • How should we treat those who are different from us? 
  • How should we disagree with each other? 
  • Does Judaism require that we forgive someone who has deeply wronged us? 
  • What is a healthy loving relationship?
  • What does “success” really mean?

Teachers and students alike will explore the nuances, tensions, debates, and inspirational stories on each issue. They will learn the core relevant texts and ideas on the topic — from Biblical literature to medieval rabbinic leaders, from modern Jewish theologians to great psychologists and philosophers in the broader world. 

This curriculum weaves together ideas from Adam Grant and Angela Duckworth to Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Think of this as TED Talks meets ancient Jewish wisdom in language that resonates with your students. It is appropriate for day schools, congregational schools, Hillels, summer camps and Jewish studies and Jewish ethics classes.

The goal is that students will not only internalize the wisdom and moral guidance of Judaism on each topic, but that they will see how the power of Jewish thought can help them live enriched lives with meaning, purpose, and direction.

“The Power of Judaism” curriculum was inspired by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt’l — one of the core messages of his life was how Judaism could speak to each aspect of our lives. To view the videos, podcasts and educational guides and bring these ideas to your classroom, visit the Unpacked for Educators website.

Noam Weissman is the executive vice president of OpenDor Media and Unpacked for Educators, a Jewish media and education company. Sara Himeles recently graduated from Ziegler rabbinical school at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and is an editor at OpenDor Media and Unpacked for Educators.