Jewish Day Schools and the Canary Mission

Wall mural by Stuart Sheldon (U Miami Hillel); screen capture U News@The U.

By Rabbi Philip Graubart

This past fall, a school administrator pulled me aside and told me that one of our incoming ninth graders had just lost her mother. She was informing all the student’s teachers, but I’m also a rabbi, and serve in that capacity, so she thought I might have something unique to offer.

I teach the ninth grade Judaica curriculum, a conceptual, big-idea based re-introduction to Judaism called “God, Torah, and Israel.” As it happens, I start every year with theodicy, Judaism’s exploration of existential unfairness – why bad things happen to good people. It seems to grab the students’ attention and focuses our early God-discussions on a haunting, fascinating, easily-relatable mystery. And, from Job, through the Talmud, through Holocaust writings, through Harold Kushner, there’s certainly enough material.

But this year I hesitated. Most ninth graders have experienced some degree of unfairness in their lives, but this young woman had lost a loving mother to a cruel disease. Maybe postpone the unit, or skip it altogether? On the other hand, several of my colleagues reminded me, maybe the mystery of evil was exactly the topic Ellen (not her real name) needed. After all, she’d be asking the same questions the unit covered: How could God allow this? Is there a God? How does anyone move on from unspeakable loss and pain? At least I’d be giving her a Jewish framework for these questions, and she could explore them with loving peers, and sympathetic teachers. I taught the unit.

Interestingly, Ellen participated quite a bit in class – she’s an outgoing, cheerful, curious student – but shared almost nothing about her mother. She did, however, write extensively about the loss in her journaling exercises. Also, in private conversation, she told me how she felt a new responsibility to “mother” her young sister. She asked me to review the parent blessing with her, so she could give it to her sister every Friday night (“Where do I put my hands?”). I often dismissed her early on Fridays so she could participate in the lower school Kabbalat Shabbat as a kind of parent to her sister.

Judaica teachers at our school and others often ask ourselves, what exactly are we trying to accomplish? We’re not preparing the students for an AP exam. Despite some efforts, there’s not a universally agreed upon body of knowledge that conveys Jewish literacy or confidence or identity, certainly not at our school, an independent, pluralistic Jewish day school. But after teaching Ellen, I realized that we do provide radically relevant guidance on the key human crises that all our students will face. Ellen was young in losing her mother, but all of our students will experience loss. A basic, serious Jewish education will help them cope. And, of course, all of our students will feel love and heartbreak and disappointment and joy and ethical confusion; all will crave meaning and direction. Jewish ideas and customs will guide them through each of these journeys. We admit that most of our students will work harder at their AP calculus classes, but we can also fully expect that our teachings, relevant as they are to essential moments in the human condition, will have a life-long impact.

Which brings me to American Judaism, specifically our institutions – what we’re funding, and what we’re not. This week, I read a long, thoroughly reported article in Forward about the shadowy, twilight struggle against BDS, generously funded by the Israeli government and a small coalition of mega-donors. This battle has been going on for some time, but it seems to have exploded in 2015, due to a combination of American political maneuverings (the Iran deal), and FIFA’s threat to boycott Israel. In the meantime, the obsession with funding pro-Israel activist has (predictably) led to a counter move in American Jewish institutional culture – the young, anti-occupation millennials – most prominently If Not Now, and other dissenters from Birthright. If you just followed the money in American Judaism, or skimmed American Jewish journalism and social media, you’d think the biggest crisis we’re facing is that we don’t have enough political activists – on the left or the right. After all, that’s all we talk about, and that’s where the money’s going.

But despite all the genuine passion on the right and the left, most of our young Jews have no interest in becoming political activists (most people don’t become political activists). In fact it’s hard to imagine the political culture created by the Campus Maccabees or the shadowy, mega-funded Canary Mission had done much more than create a toxic environment that’s turned many young Jews away from Jewish involvement.

It seems ridiculously obvious to have to say it, but if we really want to create a lasting, dynamic Jewish identity for American Jews, we have to show that Judaism is relevant on a day to day, deeply personal level. Most Jews won’t become activists, but everyone will lose someone they love; everyone will struggle with their conscience; everyone will crave community; everyone will celebrate, mourn, eat, drink, work. A Judaism with teachings relevant to these moments will thrive.

And which institutions provide precisely these teachings? It’s not the ones we read about in the social justice innovation sector, or the pro-Israel conglomerates, or the feisty anti-Occupation dissidents – though, don’t misunderstand me, each of these groups has something to offer. But the organizations that will carry us forward are the old fashioned ones: synagogues and Jewish schools. That’s where you’ll find educators and rabbis who dedicate their professional lives to teaching Jewish wisdom’s ongoing relevance.

I’m proud of what we accomplished with Ellen this past semester, though of course I worry about her. But I also wonder what kind of Jewish world she’s entering, in America. What will our donor’s fund, what will future Ellen’s receive as their actual birthright? It seems like a good time to ask this question. If not now?

Rabbi Philip Graubart is Chief Jewish Officer & Director, Advanced Institute for Judaic Studies, at San Diego Jewish Academy.