Applied Jewish learning
Jewish learning for today’s Jewish adults: New approaches for new times
How can we bring Judaism’s richness to those who are alienated from it? Such individuals may feel misunderstood, or even unwelcome, in environments that assume more traditional approaches to Jewish education, belonging and practice.
When I was in my early 30s – in a previous century – I met and fell in love with an observant Jewish woman with two young daughters, ages 2 and 5. As our relationship deepened and we began to discuss marriage, this woman (now my wife of almost 29 years) made clear to me that, if I was serious about her, I’d have to get serious about Judaism. I had been raised with almost nothing in the way of observance or education, while Jewish identity and worship had always been fundamental to who she is. If I was going to commit to her, she said, I had to commit to becoming a Jewishly educated partner and parent.
My Jewish education started soon thereafter, beginning with adult confirmation, continuing through an adult bar mitzvah, and culminating (at a very late age) in a PhD in the history of Judaism from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2018.
I tell you all this not because I’m interviewing for a job with your organization, but because I have learned in a wide variety of Jewish educational settings. Most of them shared two basic assumptions: That Judaism was central to my identity, and that my life centered around a Jewish community. It’s become clear to me that adult Jewish learning must be reconceived for a new generation of Jews and “Jewish-adjacent” individuals and families – people for whom these two assumptions are not necessarily true.
In the coming years, a large generation, featuring a significant proportion of unaffiliated and religiously non-observant Jews and “Jewish-adjacent” partners, will be entering the heart of adulthood. Most of these people will not have experienced Jewish day school, Hebrew school, b’nai mitzvah or Jewish camp. They will not be major donors to Jewish causes or regulars at synagogue. And they will not be reached by Jewish adult education programs that are geared primarily toward people already committed to Jewish belonging.
The recent Pew Research Center report on “Jewish Americans in 2020” noted that “about a quarter (27%) of Jewish adults do not identify with the Jewish religion,” defining themselves instead as Jews in terms of ethnicity, culture, or family background. Traditional adult education programs will have a harder time reaching this generation. This is borne out in the findings of a national think tank on adult Jewish learning held at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in 2019, where I have taught for the past few years and where I’m now a staff member. Participants in the think tank delved into issues confronting adult Jewish learning, and presented findings and recommendations for proposed realignment of priorities and offerings in the field. Among the findings:
- Adult Jewish learning offerings are generally geared toward older learners, who favor more traditional topics (i.e., Jewish observance, text study, learning about the Holocaust) and learning styles (i.e., lecture format).
- Younger learners, who are more diverse than their older counterparts, tend to seek out learning on topics such as culture, identity, current events and social justice. They also prefer a more experiential and interactive learning environment (i.e., breakout groups, discussion, multimedia presentations).
- The challenge of presenting offerings that can reach such diverse constituencies is exacerbated by the fact that, in many instances, those who lead adult Jewish learning initiatives often have little training in the field and have widely varying levels of Jewish knowledge themselves.
Adult learning programs have most often been tailored to “parents and grandparents in our communities, the donors, the agency leaders, the creators and entrepreneurs.” Going forward, such programs will fail to reach most adults for whom Judaism is an important but neglected aspect of their identity. This is not to say that adult education programs should not have communal leaders as a primary audience. Rather, it’s to ask: How can we bring Judaism’s richness to those who are alienated from it? Such individuals may feel misunderstood, or even unwelcome, in environments that assume more traditional approaches to Jewish education, belonging and practice. According to the Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey, the types of communities that millennials seek to create tend to be organized according to values rather than beliefs. And these individuals will play, in fact are already playing, an increasingly significant role in shaping the Jewish future – though they may not know it.
One response to this situation would be to say that scarce resources should not be allocated to teaching such individuals what they don’t seem interested in. This raises an important question: what are the main purposes of adult Jewish learning? Sustaining Jewish continuity and community are important and should remain so – but more and more, people want to understand their own background, their own identity, the values that form the foundation of their own personal and cultural orientation. Adult Jewish learning must adapt to this reality by meeting Jewish, Jewish-adjacent, and Jew-curious millennials where they are. What would such an adaptation look like?
There are organizations that have already begun fashioning answers to this question. Three examples in my back yard come to mind: Svara, the Queer Yeshiva, is a place, says its founder Rabbi Benay Lappe, “where we who once felt like outsiders, become insiders for the first time.” Another is Orot/Center for New Jewish Learning, which brings Jewish mindfulness practice to the heart of Jewish learning (full disclosure: I have taught for Orot). Spertus Institute, whose Jewish studies program I direct, offers master’s and doctoral degree programs to those who want to engage in sustained Jewish learning, regardless of their background, Jewish education or affiliation.
What these organizations have in common are three fundamental commitments that should become central to more adult Jewish education programs: First, inclusiveness. Adult Jewish learning should not just be open to those for whom Judaism is not a central aspect of their identity: It should actively seek such people out and be designed with them in mind. Second, a commitment to accommodating the increasing complexity of individual and collective identity. Young adults tend to understand identity as fluid and subjective, and they may see Judaism as antithetical to that concept until Jewish education shows them otherwise. Addressing this reality would be an example of what we at Spertus call “applied Jewish learning” – bringing rich and varied Jewish knowledge to bear on concrete contemporary challenges and opportunities.
Third, adult Jewish education must commit to creatively incorporating sources, mediums and materials that reflect the rich variety of Jewish life and recognize that Jewish experiences come in many forms.
Jewish people come in many forms, too. And the more we bring Jewish education home to those who didn’t receive it at home, the stronger our communities will be.
David N. Gottlieb is Director of Jewish Studies at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago.