N’aaseh! Taking Action to Preserve the Holiness of Jewish Education

By Manette Mayberg

We are almost at Shavuot, which is typically an opportune time to gather together in person to study Torah. Even with today’s social distancing requirements, Shavuot certainly should remain a time to highlight the foundational source of our Jewish wisdom and values that have guided the Jewish people since the revelation at Mt. Sinai. Shavuot marks our acceptance of the Torah as the birth of the Jewish nation. And Shavuot, is by definition, Jewish education, celebrating the passing of the Torah from one generation to the next. While definitions and interpretations might vary across the Jewish spectrum, there are many places of unified perspective and a unified charge to develop Jewish identity.

When we stood at Mt. Sinai and said “na’aseh v’nishma,” we will do and we will listen, we became a holy nation. Later, God specifically charged the Jewish people to be holy – “kedoshim t’hiyu” – meaning we are distinct, separate. Like the way many kiss a prayer book if it drops, we treat holy objects with tremendous care and consideration – separate and distinct from the ways we treat other objects.

The same is true with the responsibility with which we are tasked in Jewish education. To convey the holy Torah – the sustainer of Judaism for thousands of years – we must take great care to employ the methods and models of teaching that most effectively embrace this holy responsibility. Our methods of transmission must be developed and conveyed with great care, distinct from general studies subjects. Children and teens want to take in information that is relevant to their lives in an engaging, contemporary, customizable and realistic framework. In an age of increased distance learning, it is time for even more experimentation with personalized learning, while developing the role of educators as relationship-builders and mentors that are essential to deep impact education. Technology, in particular, can be a lever for shifting pedagogies, making blended learning an ideal approach for Jewish educators to explore in earnest.

We read in Exodus (19:15) just before the revelation at Sinai that Moshe told B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel, to “Ready yourself.” It was an alert from God that the moments when Torah is transmitted need the most preparation and care. What a clear call to action for Jewish educators shaping their classrooms – both in person and online. If the learning experience is not surrounded with context, relevance, love, tolerance and spiritual nourishment, then that moment of “transmission” can fail. Even if the knowledge itself is transmitted, the holiness, the distinction that is vital to internalizing the wisdom and values can be lost.

Transmission of texts cannot be the end game if we are to deliver Jewish education responsibly and consistent with our mandate. If we do not protect that moment of transmission to create successful ownership and prevent lost legacy, then we are radically underperforming in our most important life investment: the education of our children. If we mistakenly assume that simply transferring knowledge is enough to sustain future generations, then we are not seeing the big picture of Jewish education. If we are satisfied with an educational process that ignores the distinction of this learning or the individuals themselves, then we are off course in the way we think about kedusha/holiness and the obligation we accepted when we said “na’aseh v’nishma.”

So what are Jewish day schools to do to ensure a strong Jewish future?

My husband, Louis, and I, as Trustees of the Mayberg Foundation, are not flippant investors. We take prudent risks, investing our dollars in seeding movements. We invest in patient strategies to align for success with a spirit of Jewish unity. We encourage cooperation between diverse constituencies. We believe in stimulating innovation and inspiring courage to create change.

Given that, our support of Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC) hinges on our belief that in order to create radical improvement in Jewish day schools, it is essential that day school stakeholders take an honest look at the outcomes and propel the strategies needed to create the change we want to see. How effective are our existing models of Jewish education – both in-person and online? How well are we cultivating strong God-student relationships? And how are we even ascertaining the answers to those questions? Ultimately, as parents, educators, influencers and funders, our obligation is to ensure that every Jewish student can reach their unique potential and develop strong, unwavering Jewish identity, Jewish pride and personal connections with the Divine.

The goal is for every student to enjoy success and build Jewish self-esteem through their Jewish learning – no matter how much material is covered or not and no matter how much is memorized or not. Jewish wisdom tells us the reward is in the effort, not the result.

Our sense of urgency to catapult Jewish education to the forefront of innovation existed long before the COVID-19 crisis. The urgency comes from the wisdom of our tradition that propels us to take action first – na’aseh – to ensure the revelation at Sinai is a gift that this and future generations will continue to embrace and cherish.

Experimentation and educational paradigm shifts are what we need to develop a strong next generation who can withstand the usual life challenges, as well as the unexpected adversity with which we are all too familiar. There’s nothing simple or black and white about the most effective ways for conveying our Jewish wisdom and values. We can be certain that if educators and funders prioritize a collective effort to transmit Jewish wisdom and values, the result will be the strongest possible Jewish identity for our future generations.

As a trustee of the Mayberg Foundation, which supports Jewish education and outreach initiatives, Manette Mayberg founded Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC) in 2012. She now works with multiple philanthropic partners to advance JEIC’s vision to reignite students’ passion for Jewish learning and improve the way Jewish values, literacy, practice and belief are transferred to the next generation. She can be contacted at Manette@Mayberg.org