Jewish Education as a Personal Quest: The Seder as a Model

How often do we plan events or experiences, or teach material, that we presume others would be interested in, but which we ourselves are not?

bored-dinnerBy Abi Dauber Sterne

“That was the worst seder ever!” exclaimed my 7-year old son the next morning. “It wasn’t even a real one,” he continued. “I didn’t want a seder that was for kids, I wanted the real one.”

On the first night of Passover this year, my family tried something different than we had in years past. For the first hour of the Seder, we ran the Seder exclusively for the children. We made Kiddush four times, we sang dayenu, avadim hayinu, ma nishtanah and more. We ate karpas, etc. etc. We incorporated all the regular elements of a “regular” seder, so what was my son objecting to?

As I began to analyze the experience, I believe I more clearly understood his complaint. The seder didn’t feel real because the experience was solely focused on the children. In trying to be inclusive of the children, we excluded the adults. Or, put another way, there was little attempt at feeding the kids’ curiosity, but more of an attempt to entertain the children and keep them interested. And, to be honest, the “kids seder” was pretty boring for the adults too.

How often do we do this in our organized, communal Jewish life? How often do we plan events or experiences, or teach material, that we presume others would be interested in, but which we ourselves are not?

Teaching something just to provide someone else with an experience, generally deadens the experience. By over-focusing on the student or participant – particularly in adult contexts – the learning is far less interesting.

But by sharing an idea, tradition, or text that the teacher himself finds true delight in, the whole experience is enlivened.

In academic terms, this is called “religious capital.” According to Roger Finke and Keven D. Dougherty, in an article about the training of Christian clergy, “religious capital consists of the degree of mastery of and attachment to a particular religious culture. The mastery of the religious culture refers to learning the knowledge, skills, and rituals of a specific religion … Yet, religious capital includes more than a learned mastery of religion, it also includes an emotional attachment to a particular religious culture.” (Finke & Dougherty, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, March 2002). This emotional attachment is about a deep curiosity and personal quest to find meaning and understanding in the world, through religious or spiritual ideas and ideals.

In our work at Hillel International’s Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience, we’ve increasingly begun to focus on this idea of religious capital. That is, in all of our professional development programs that train Hillel professionals to be stronger Jewish educators, we have a dual focus – one is on building knowledge and skills, but the other, just as crucial, is to an “emotional attachment” to Jewish ideas and texts. We use the term “Jewish fluency” to reflect this magical combination of knowledge and attachment.

The goal of education – and more specifically Jewish education – at Hillel is to help our students and staff discover the deep well of Jewish ideas and wisdom that our tradition offers to us all. And, it is not just about sharing these ideas. In fact, for the Hillel professional, it’s about delighting in the experiences and learning from them him or herself. Or, in the words of Parker Palmer in The Courage to Teach, “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher,” and, he continues, “As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students.”

Increasingly, particularly with professionals who are at the beginning of their careers, we are finding that the most inspiring Hillel professionals are the ones who are in the midst of this spiritual quest, this search for more and more religious capital, more Jewish fluency. These professionals are not only interested in creating a Seder for their student, they are actually interested in creating a Seder that they themselves would want to attend. They are motivated to develop new Passover experiences, not just to enrich their students, but also – or even, especially – to enrich themselves.

As Hillels throughout the world seek to hire an increasing number of Jewish educators – rabbis, folks with Masters in Jewish Education, and individuals just out of college seeking to become educators – finding these professionals is a tall order. Hillel positions, will be asking its educational professionals to bring their whole self to their work. For the right person, this is the most exciting and integrated approach to work and life more generally. Working at Hillel is increasingly an opportunity to develop one’s own spiritual life, ideas, and ideals, as well as learning how to talk about them with others.
And, as for me, my family seder will look very different next year. It will certainly include and engage the kids, but it will be exciting and inspirational for me as well.

Abi Dauber Sterne is VP for Jewish Education & Director of the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience at Hillel International.