How Nel Noddings Would Transform USY

Teens from across the country celebrate Opening Session of 2019 USY International Convention in Orlando, FL with teens from the Metropolitan New York area. Photo credit: Alloor Photography

By Rabbi Joshua Rabin

Ben Bag Bag liked to say [regarding the Torah]: Turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; look deeply into it and grow old and tired, but do not desist from [the study of] it – for there is no greater virtue than [to study] it.”
~Pirke Avot 5:24

One day in Professor Carol Ingall’s class at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I was introduced to a thinker who changed my life: Nel Noddings.

After a long career as a mathematics teacher and school administrator, Nel Noddings became a philosopher of education who taught primarily at Stanford University. In many ways inspired by Carol Gilligan’s groundbreaking work In a Different Voice, Noddings wrote Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education to place acts of caring and being cared-for at the center of moral education and thriving educational communities.

Noddings writes that “When we see the other’s reality as a possibility for us, we must act to eliminate the intolerable, to reduce the pain, to fill the need, to actualize the dream. When I am in this sort of relationship with another … I care” (Caring, 14). The brilliance of Noddings’ framework is that caring is a guiding action that can extend to numerous circles of responsibilities, whether that includes caring about ideas, caring about people, caring about the planet, or even caring about a particular subject, whether it be math, art, or Judaism.

Judaism obligates us to care, whether through the commitment to mitzvot, a consistent devotion to Talmud Torah, the regular performance of acts of gemilut hasadim, or a passion for Israel. And thus the greatest “threat” to Judaism is not a lack of knowledge or a lack of observance, but apathy. Possibilities exist if a person desires a deeper Jewish life; but if he/she/they does not even wish to begin the journey, then we are licked before we begin.

Noddings’ ideas stay with me every day as I take on the leadership of United Synagogue Youth (USY), Conservative Judaism’s youth movement. USY was and remains an exceptional experience, a community for Jewish teeangers who want something more out of their Judaism. And yet, like so much of North American Judaism, USY is at a crossroads in how we mobilize ourselves in the coming decade not only to serve as many Jewish teenagers we can, but serve them in a way that does honor to Jewish tradition.

The False Choice of Judaism For the Many or Judaism for the Few

Twenty years ago this summer, I went on USY Israel Pilgrimage and came home shomer Shabbat, shomer kashrut, and wearing a kippah and tzitzit to my public high school. Even then, I was the minority within USY; most of my best friends in USY did not observe Shabbat or Kashrut. And even then, that was OK with me; we formed a supportive Jewish community that affirmed many types of ways a person can care about Judaism, while recognizing that Judaism must always be in the foreground of USY, and never in the background.

In many ways the core debate at the heart of USY’s educational mission has existed since its founding in 1951: Does USY serve only a niche of Jewish teenagers who want maximal Jewish observance, or does USY represent a populist brand of teen engagement where the more we serve, the better, no matter how we get there? What intrigues me about this debate is the presumption that this is a new “problem” that USY must “solve,” as opposed to a polarity we needed to manage from the beginning. If someone wants to try on a more observant Jewish “hat” (pun intended) in USY, we need to support that. And if someone has no interest in that level of observance, then we have an obligation to support them while pushing him/her/them to care more about Judaism.

What’s changed about our educational context is that the overwhelming majority of teenagers who walk into USY today are what Rabbi David Wolpe calls “immigrants” to Judaism (“Going Native,” in Floating Takes Faith). Almost seventy years ago, a Jewish teenager could walk into a synagogue and put on tefillin, even if he/she/they never put it on any other weekday of the year. Yet today, Rabbi Wolpe writes that “We are as uncomfortable praying in shul as our grandparents were watching football in America.”

Thus, in 2020, how are we to serve USYers and help them grow as Jews, when some USYers are immersed in Jewish life every day at USY, Camp Ramah, and Schechter day schools, but most never set foot into the synagogue after their B’nai Mitzvah? By teaching all of them to care more about Judaism tomorrow than they did today.

All Jews Can Be Closer to Their Judaism

In The Challenge to Care in Schools, Nel Noddings points out that one of the ills of modern education is that educators who are the most passionate about a particular subject often assume that their primary objetive must be to get their students to love the subject as much as the teacher does. Noddings writes:

“Everywhere today, educators in the particular disciplines want to teach their subject from the perspective of experts in the field. Students are supposed to learn to think like mathematicians, scientists, historians, literary critics, aestheticians, and ethicists. This attitude is pernicious and actually does violence to the disciplines thus presented” (The Challenge to Care in Schools, 50).

What could be the harm of encouraging students to think like a mathematician or a historian? For one thing, that goal presumes that thinking like a mathematician or a historian will remain consistently useful when (not if) the majority of students do not become mathematicians or historians. More importantly, Noddings argues that presuming that the only way to use mathematics is the way an expert uses it deprives the student of the freedom “to find their own uses for mathematics and choose their own attitude toward it” (150).

Turning to Jewish education, most Jewish educators are the top 1% of the most interested and passionate people about Judaism, and while there are countless stories of children inspired by an educator to take the same path, the same path I walked on twenty years ago, the majority of children will not choose the precise path that I did. But just because they do not choose my Jewish path does not mean that their Judaism cannot be made richer; the educator’s job is to move that teenager forward “according to their way” (Mishlei 22:6), for failing to find each teenager’s own unique starting point is tantamount to ignoring the journey altogether.

Furthermore, just because most Jewish teeangers will not embrace the most traditional forms of Jewish life does not mean that we should not model that mode of Jewish life at all. Noddings writes that “Joy often accompanies a realization of our relatedness … We want to remain in direct contact with that which brings us joy and, somehow, with that joy itself” (Caring, 132). Part of what makes Jewish educators so passionate about Judaism is that they are aware of how inspiring it is to study a Jewish text, to sing songs on Shabbat, to live in Israel for an extended period of time. Yet the journey to care at that level begins with a spark, and the spark ignites when we find the most effective way to begin.

As such, the question of whether or not USY must be for the many or for the few is a false choice; the only choice is to do great education, and great education recognizes that every path is unique and the essence of the path remains the same.

A Students Obligation

My favorite text about Jewish education is Hovat Ha-Talmidim (A Student’s Obligation), a treatise of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto and often referred to as the Esh Kodesh (The Holy Fire). In the introduction, Rabbi Shapira writes that education “means stimulating the growth and development of what each child is suited for by his very nature … it is necessary to raise him and educate him to bring out and reveal this godliness and allow it to flourish.” USY helped me love Judaism, sent me forth to bring my Torah into the world, and now it is my great fortune to return and empower others to do the same.

I am biased, but USY remains the greatest proving ground for leadership in the Jewish World, not just the Conservative Movement; we empower exceptional Jewish teens to create exceptional Jewish experiences, and they go to lead their communities in all corners of Jewish life. We count among our alumni Arnold Eisen, Eric Fingerhut, Meredith Jacobs, Mark Borovitz, John Ruskay, Shulamith Elster, Michael Oren, Jessica Abo, Elka Abrahamson, Rela Mintz Geffen z’’l, Danny Siegel, Sid Schwarz, Elie Kaunfer, Tobin Belzer, Moshe Shur, Jay Kaiman, Jeremy Fingerman, Jodi Rudoren, Ron Wolfson, Bari Weiss, Peter Geffen, and Michael Levin z’’l, plus too many congregational rabbis and educators to count. We have an illustrious history.

And we are not done. We have thousands more Jewish teens to inspire, and it begins by teaching them to care about their Judaism. And in a time of great change, caring is the heart of USY’s Torah. All the rest is commentary; go and study.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Senior Director of Teen Engagement at USCJ, where he leads United Synagogue Youth (USY) in North America and Israel. You can read more of Josh’s writings atwww.joshuarabin.com.