I Don’t Know

The facts are simple: the world is changing. The needs of education are changing, and the tools of education are changing.

by Sarah Levy

A few nights ago, I attended a panel on the “Future of Jewish Education.” Hosted by one of the local synagogues in conjunction with the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning, the panelists included a supplemental school director, a Day School head, a couple of educators who run alternative programs, and a policy analyst.

While I wasn’t exactly expecting Marty McFly and Doc to arrive in a DeLorean, I was hoping for a serious conversation that would address the changing demographics and needs of the community and some of the innovations that were being introduced.

The introductory remarks, in general, didn’t involve anything exciting. The panelists talked about how they aim to teach students the joy of being Jewish, to give them a tool box for living a Jewish life, and to continue Jewish peoplehood. They mentioned lifelong learning and connecting to the family, and they talked about the need to hire teachers with passion.

When someone specifically asked a question about what the future of Jewish education in the DC area holds, many of the same answers were given, and there was talk of how “strong Jewish education is the birthright of each student.” There were mentions of technology, and the word “community” was often used in referring to responsibility and relevance, but with no clear vision or direction.

One member of the panel took a different path, however, stating that, in addition to the obvious problem of price in Jewish education, we have a problem of product. We have no clear goals and ways to benchmark; that, he said, is currently a problem and will continue to be a problem until we fix it. It won’t be fixed, though, he warned as “our community chooses not to ask serious questions and get serious answers.”

This reminded me of something a colleague said while at the North American Jewish Day School Conference. He said that our Day School schedules represent an unwillingness to say no; we are constantly trying to include everything that we can into Jewish education and refuse to admit that it may not be possible. We want to include time for prayer, built-in time to create community, time to recognize different aspects of the Jewish calendar, time for extracurricular activities … all while balancing dual curriculum and trying to ensure that the math department doesn’t complain too much about its lack of time relative to secular schools.

We don’t like to ask questions when we don’t know the answers (or are afraid of what the answers may be), and, should a question happen to be posed, we don’t like to say “no” when it may make us unpopular, even if it may be what’s best. Instead of asking serious questions about our needs, goals, and priorities, we say yes … because it’s easier than saying no … or, gasp, I don’t know.

The theme of the faculty speech at Siyum (pre-graduation ceremony) this year was that it’s okay not to know. The speaker encouraged the senior class to take advantage of those moments and see where they lead. Not knowing leads to questions and investigation. Not knowing leads to new experiences and new knowledge.

Not knowing is scary though. I, personally, hate not knowing so much that I spend hours scouring the Internet for spoilers for my favorite shows because I don’t like not knowing what happens next with my favorite characters. I check my email about 1,000 times a day (both personal and work) because I don’t like not knowing what may be there waiting for me, and I will pretty much never admit in conversation that there is something I don’t know.

Students are different, however. In my classroom, we have a parking lot for student questions that are off-topic or that require more time than we have on a given day. We take time to address these questions either after our lesson for the day is over or on special parking lot days, and these times are often a favorite for the students. As opposed to many of us, the students are not afraid to admit that they don’t know. They love to ask the questions to which there may not be an answer, and they are not afraid of asking something that may be controversial or difficult to address. Their questions reveal their thought processes, their interests, and their concerns. But their questions also reveal their willingness to admit that they don’t know … that maybe no one knows, and that is okay … as long as we’re still willing to ask the questions and struggle together to find an answer.

The fact is, regarding the future of Jewish education, there is no way for us to know. Jewish education is traditionally several years behind that of secular education. We have been doing better lately, but we’re still not quite there. We could, therefore, look towards the recent past of secular education as a way to gain insight into the future of Jewish education, or we could ask our own questions and seek our own answers. We ask our students to question and do employ critical thinking … maybe it’s time we ask that of ourselves.

The facts are simple: the world is changing. The needs of education are changing, and the tools of education are changing. We could choose to ignore that and continue doing what we are doing … or we could ask the difficult questions that may lead to difficult answers and more work or may even lead to no answers and force us to admit that we don’t know.

In the end, the panelists didn’t have the answers, and it very well may have been because they were afraid to admit what many of us already know – that we just don’t know. But at least some questions were being asked.

Sarah Levy is a teacher at the Charles E Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD and is also earning a doctorate in education.