Jewish Education and Jewish Identity Development:
Is there a Difference?
By Melissa Cohavi
As someone who has been involved in the Jewish education world for over 20 years, when I took a position four years ago as the Director of Jewish Identity Development (at Congregation B’nai Yisrael in Armonk, New York), at first I saw no difference between Jewish education and Jewish identity development. But four years later I can say now that there is a difference, and this is why.
John Dewey, one of the education greats, wrote about how children learn best when they interact with their environment. One of his most famous quotes is, “Education is a social process; education is growth; education is not preparation for life but is life itself,” and for me life education is identity development. Dewey also taught us that learners need to interact directly with their environment, and this theory has developed into the field of experiential education. Through studies in the field of experiential education we also know that effective education comes primarily through social experiences. Other factors that come into play here are Jewish affiliation in the United States is shrinking for all the reasons we have all heard before, and we know that millennials are less likely to join a congregation and affiliate with a Jewish community, especially one that requires dues payments. These factors do not mean that the Jewish identities of millennials and other Jews are not thriving in other ways, and that is where being the Director of Jewish Identity Development comes into play.
Bringing Judaism to my students is, of course, education, but my long-term goal is identity, and by having that goal in mind I don’t worry over the curriculum that wasn’t taught or the subject matter we did not have the time to cover. I concern myself with the here-and-now. I want my students to know that Judaism can be a part of their everyday lives and that there are real ways this can happen. Many in our part of New York might view what we do as Judaism “lite,” but that doesn’t bother me because I know that my students and families are having fun through experiences while learning and are able to see that they can both play competitive soccer and be connected to a Jewish community – it is not either-or. Congregation B’nai Yisrael is growing and thriving at a time when many Jewish communities are shrinking and merging, and there is a reason for that. Identity development is something we think about throughout all aspects of our education and programming, and we respond to our members in ways that speak to them versus ways that we think they should respond and the Jews that we think they should be.
We are living at a time in Jewish history when identity development is more important than ever. Our young people need to see that their Jewish identity can be integrated with the rest of their lives. Educating for Jewish identity is different than educating for the sake of education. I am in it for the long run and have created a program that looks towards the future of the youth in my community and how their Jewish identities can serve them as they grow up in a highly connected and integrated world.
Melissa S. Cohavi is the Director of Jewish Identity Development at Congregation B’nai Yisrael in Armonk, New York. She has an MSW from Yeshiva University and a Masters in Religious Education from HUC-JIR. Melissa is in the sixth cohort of JTS’ Executive Doctoral program and was in the first cohort of the iCenter’sGraduate Certificate in Israel Education and George Washington University.