Jewish Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism: The Challenge of Measuring Success

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 10 – Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Shuki Taylor

The following paper considers the challenges that emerge when measuring the success of educational initiatives – challenges that are augmented in the context of Jewish Peoplehood education in Pluralistic settings.

Pluralism celebrates the legitimacy of the Jewish community’s diversity. Peoplehood nurtures this community’s diverse commitment to the Jewish collective enterprise. Fostering this sense of commitment and belonging requires that, as educators, we embrace the full spectrum of perspectives the Jewish people subscribes to. In the age of Pluralism, we must be mindful of the fact that learners harbor a variety of different beliefs. The ways in which learners feel belonging and demonstrate commitment to the Jewish collective will vary greatly.

Bethamie Horowitz, in her “Connections and Journeys,” articulates this with great clarity:

“From an organizational point of view, each of the groups that our study identified should be targeted in different ways, in different degrees and for different purposes. Each segment of the population would be better served by a message and intervention strategy designed specifically to meet their needs.”

Hence, in order to be successful, the Jewish educator must accommodate multiple denominations and engage multiple viewpoints.

While this approach is extremely important in crafting and running educational experiences, it is equally important in evaluating the success of such experiences. In evaluating success, we must be mindful of our learners’ perspectives. Where was our learner before participating on this program? Where did she find herself after having participated? What changed? How did our learner’s connection to other Jews and to Judaism change because of her participation on the program? Indeed, the answers to all of these questions will be different for each and every program participant – but therein lies the beauty of Pluralism and of Peoplehood. Every learner has the ability to enhance his or her sense of belonging and to strengthen his or her commitment. There is no denominational floor and there is no denominational ceiling.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler expanded on this concept nearly a century ago in his comments on the verse in Deuteronomy 30:19: “I have put before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; choose life, so that you may live.” Rabbi Dessler explains: “’Life and Death’ comprise all that a person is ‘given’ – all the facets of a person’s character, his inborn traits and tendencies, his upbringing and environment; all those factors which determine what is called ‘life.’” Our task as educators is to measure whether or not we can assist students in recognizing what they call “life” and in choosing “life.”

Rabbi Dessler offers this explanation in the context of his broader discussion regarding what he calls the “behira-point” – the point at which each individual has free will. As Rabbi Dessler points out, one does not need to exercise free will in order to perform deeds that are already ingrained in one’s conscious or charitable acts that one is already accustomed to. Our natural inclinations allow us to make these decisions easily. However, other decisions are harder to make. In each and every person, there is a point at which the forces pulling in either direction are more or less equal and over which one’s natural inclination (as determined by background, upbringing and other factors) does not have ultimate control. It is at this point – the behira-point – that true choice comes into play.

Our job as educators is to realize that every learner has a different behira-point. Moreover, we must realize that each learner’s behira-point is fluid – that, as Rabbi Dessler puts it, the behira-point “does not remain static in any given individual.” Our first task as Jewish educators in the age of Pluralism is to recognize each learner’s behira-point and how this behira-point enables the learner to express his or her unique connection to the Jewish people. Our next task is to elevate this unique connection to new heights.

When evaluating success, it is especially important to be mindful of the wide range of starting points learners might have and the wide range of changes they might undergo as a result of a particular program. If we measure the impact of a program by focusing on a specific range of behaviors, we end up excluding participants who already engaged in such behaviors prior to the program or participants who have no interest in ever engaging in such behaviors.

In a recent study[1] of an immersive experience, the following analysis is set forth:

“While the programs seem to have been quite successful in cultivating positive Jewish attitudes, they are less effective in cultivating Jewish behaviors, especially those that take participants outside the norms within which they usually act. This might be because… some participants actually come into programs having reached a ceiling of engagement.”

While the term “ceiling of engagement” is used here more as a statistical term than a philosophical one, I do not believe that it is possible for any learner to reach a “ceiling of engagement”. Peoplehood education, especially in the age of Pluralism, is designed to inspire a large variety of different types of behaviors that cannot be adequately captured by assessing a pre-determined list of behaviors – as broad and varied as such a list might be.

Educators looking to cultivate Peoplehood in Pluralistic settings must focus on developing measurements for success that do justice to these philosophies. These success measurements must account for the diverse and evolving behira-points and perspectives that learners of different denominations bring with them. They should account for, be open to and evolve with the wide-array of outcomes that might ensue.

Shuki Taylor is the director of Jewish Service learning and Experiental Education Programs at Yeshiva University.

JPeoplehood logoThis essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 10 – Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.

1  Serving a Complex Israel: A report on Israel-based Immersive Jewish Service-learning (page 71)