Jewish Education in 2013: Placing Torah at the Center

by Paul Steinberg

“Change happens” as the axiom goes, and there is no doubt that the first dozen years of the twenty-first century has brought great change to American Jewish life. American Jews are simply different now and rabbis and Jewish educators are continuously experimenting with ways to appeal to the twenty-first century Jew. We constantly ask: how can we guide and inspire Jews this year to be a part of our Jewish community so that they live Jewish lives, engage in Jewish ideas, and ultimately preserve our distinct wisdom and identity for another generation? And while the question has been asked before, it really does seem harder today than it ever was.

For some answers to this question, Dr. Jonathan Woocher, one of the great contributors to Jewish educational thought, recently delineated the sociological developments that have effected the collective Jewish psyche of the twenty-first century.[i] He details eight trends that speak to the complex nature of today’s Jew. Accordingly, today’s Jew appreciates diversity and maintains a hybrid identity that networks, embracing different communities at the same time while not officially joining. Today’s Jew has a strong sense of self-autonomy and defines his or her own Judaism. Today’s Jew is technologically savvy and likes to run programs rather than simply participating in them.

Woocher then goes on to suggest how Jewish educators might address these sociological developments. The first is “placing learners at the center.” That is to say that the educational program should not be a “top-down, professionally driven enterprise, but that learning and curricula should “grow out of the learners’ lives” and that “learners and their families are co-producers of their learning experiences.” This makes a lot of sense. Yet, when we speak of placing the learners at the center, a part of me hesitates.

Frankly, the idea of placing learners at the center reminds me of an important chapter in The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer’s masterpiece on teaching and spirituality. Palmer writes of the profound nature of the community wherein education and teaching happens. He says, “Community, or connectedness, is the principle behind good teaching” and that, “Good teachers replicate the process of knowing by engaging students in the dynamics of the community of truth.”[ii] Palmer’s notion of a community of truth is the key idea here. When he emphasizes that education happens within a community of truth, the “center” of education whether it is the teachers or learners shift to a third possibility. He continues:

“Perhaps the classroom should be neither teacher-centered nor student-centered but subject centered. Modeled on the community of truth, this a classroom in which teachers and students alike are focused on a great thing… When student and teacher are the only active agents, community easily slips into narcissism, where either the teacher reigns supreme or the students can do no wrong…. True community in any context requires a transcendent third thing that holds both me and thee accountable to something beyond ourselves, a fact well known outside of education. In religious life, when a community attaches ultimacy to its ordained leadership or to the mass mind of it members, it will fall into idolatry until it turns to a transcendent center that can judge both parishioners and priests.”[iii]

I recommend that we apply Palmer’s notion of a community of truth to our synagogues, Hebrew Schools, and Day Schools, placing Torah at the center as our great subject. It should be Torah – in the broadest sense of the word – that “third thing” that compels us, binds us, motivates us, and holds us accountable. As Parker suggests of religious life, I have observed the temptation of giving supremacy to the rabbi and the mass of members for the sake of membership or marketing and, indeed it quickly becomes idolatry. If this is what is meant by “placing learners at the center,” then I oppose it.

Good rabbis and teachers do not put themselves or the student in the center of the learning circle, but place that great subject – Torah – at the center. It is then Torah and not a person that makes the demand on all of us, calling us to ask more questions, explore it, and synthesize it in a relevant way that reaches into our unique community and each one of us. When Torah is at the center it becomes a sacred vessel of embodied spirituality and mindful living of which we can bear witness and of which we are a part. That is, in fact, how Jewish educators see Torah – as a magnificent thing that is wondrous and interesting that inspires us to constantly learn more and live better. When Torah is at the center, we see the evidence in students pursuing the subject by asking and even challenging the teacher because they are invested and have learned something of the subject independent of the teacher.

In order to accomplish this, however, we need a shift of mindset about teaching and teachers: we need to value, raise, and foster more good Jewish studies and Hebrew School teachers through their own learning and collegiality. After all, these teachers are truly the first responders to the Jewish educational and sociological dilemmas that we face, yet we often abuse and devalue them by demanding more of them than any other teacher. Our teachers must themselves have ongoing and frequent opportunities, such as staff development meetings, to come together as colleagues and transform their individual knowledge and wisdom of the subject and this complicated craft into collective wisdom. For the greatest success, teachers should never compete, as No Child Left Behind would have it, but in fact collaborate.

Good teaching and learning must first be modeled among the teachers themselves in order for them to bring it to life amongst students and families. Therefore, our Jewish schools must invest in providing for them to engage in consistent conversations around the mystifying process of teaching and learning, for there is no formulaic answer to Jewish education, no technique or program du jour that is going to meet any sociological challenge or change. There is nothing beyond the passion and talent of a dynamic teacher that is capable of putting the subject at the center.

So, how can we guide and inspire Jews today to be a part of our Jewish community in 2013 so that they live Jewish lives, engage in Jewish ideas, and ultimately preserve our distinct wisdom and identity for another generation? Through the integrity, creativity, passion and identity of teachers (as well as rabbis and the leadership) invested in the process of their community of truth.

Rabbi Paul Steinberg is the Senior Educator at Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles, CA and is the author of the award-winning series, Celebrating the Jewish Year (JPS, 2009). He also teaches at the Graduate School of Education at American Jewish University and is working on his doctoral dissertation in education at the Jewish Theological Seminary

[i] Woocher, J. (2012). Reinventing Jewish education for the 21st century. Journal of Jewish Education, 78 (3), 182-226.

[ii] Palmer, Parker. (1998). The Courage to Teach.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, p. 115.

[iii] Ibid, 116-117.