Jewish Education is an Essential Service, During Crisis and Always

By Elana G. Kahn

Why would I upend my life during a global pandemic, leaving a stable, decades-long position that is vitally important to our Jewish community, to move to an urban COVID-19 hotspot? The answer lies in understanding what is essential.

As director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, I worked to protect the safety of Jews, individually and collectively, through strategic relationships. In that position, I worked to counter antisemitism by standing up and speaking out, and also by working with others to co-create a world that is safe for Jews and all others. My work mattered. But my heart hurt from looking at so much ugliness. I was ready for a change.

When the right opportunity appeared, I was ready to take on a new role, strengthening Jewish education and leadership as Associate Dean for Outreach at Spertus Institute. I arranged to push back the start date to allow for two luxurious months of transition.

I had grand plans; I would hike Spain’s renowned Camino de Santiago, walking and writing reflections on faith. Then I would sell my house and Marie Kondo my way through 20 years of accumulated stuff. I would exercise, have meaningful goodbye visits, and then, rested and ready, hop into my car and drive 100 miles down the highway to Chicago. That was my plan – the perfect deep breath before a major transition.

Instead, I spent my two months isolating at home, just like everyone else, watching with horror as pandemic spread across the globe. In the early days, I worried and waited for news about my friend who had been hospitalized with COVID-19. It was hard to get information and he was the perfect candidate to succumb to this new virus. Fortunately, he survived, but he set the tone for just how terrified I should be.

As our country marks 100,000 deaths from this virus, I note the number of friends who have died and the others who feel so vulnerable. My 83-year-old mother is in Florida and likely will stay there for many months. The only thing certain in this period is uncertainty, vulnerability, and change.

As a society, the pandemic has led us to pare down our understanding of what is essential; not bars, but supermarkets; not barbershops but hospitals; not classrooms, but education. In our Jewish sphere, fighting hatred is essential, but it is not enough; we also need engagement and education. If we are to build a robust, healthy, and innovative Jewish community, we must continue to invest in education; we must know our Jewish selves.

Our community has long argued about what is essential: How do we raise funds for education and culture when there are people who need to be fed and fights that need to be fought? The answer is messy – “yes, and.”

We must have two hands active at the same time – one dealing with urgent needs and one planting for the future. That is how our community has always moved through challenges, by continuing to care for the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional needs of the people in our community. One hand in the present and the other ensuring the future.

After my strange hiatus, I started a new position that is just as essential as my former job. In my new role, I am able to increase access to Jewish knowledge and Jewish leadership skills, to help our leaders apply Jewish learning to contemporary issues and challenges.

Spertus has always had a voice in the battle over essential work of the Jewish community. In 1931, Dr. Alexander Dushkin, Spertus’ founding president, wrote: “Both bread and education are important for the continuance of Jewish life in America, and both must be secured. Dignity, faith, self-understanding, and self-respect are as important to the normal human being as is life itself. We must provide not for the body alone, but for the spirit also.”

Ninety years later, it’s still true. Learning about Judaism and our Jewish lives allows us to access wisdom that connects us to generations of Jews and helps us orient our lives around ancient and brilliant ideas.

We need education to make sense of the present. I passed the quarantine acutely aware of Judaism’s perspectives on time. How perfect that the Omer took place during the pandemic. In addition to marking our weeks with Shabbat, our people have counted each day from Passover to Shavuot, reminding ourselves that our moments, our days, our weeks are part of larger and longer lives. Knowing our Jewish stories offers us context and perspective to face uncertainty with equanimity.

As we pass through this time of uncertainty, we need not only to grieve and to care for the most urgent needs, but to continue to explore and share Judaism’s great stories. In knowing the wealth of Jewish history, culture, and wisdom, we find the source of creativity, innovation, resilience, and joy.

Elana G. Kahn began her new position of Associate Dean for Outreach at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in the midst of the current pandemic. A graduate of Spertus Institute’s MA in Jewish Professional Studies program, she will be working with thought leaders, community professionals, alumni, and prospective students across North America, to help Spertus grow and develop new programs that meet current and future community needs.