Power and Vulnerability in Jewish Education

By Daniel Olson

As a doctoral candidate in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU, I have the opportunity to float between two mostly distinct worlds within Jewish education. I am stationed in a secular research university and am therefore connected to the world of Jewish Studies in higher education.

But my research and professional experiences have been in the world of synagogue schools, day schools, summer camps, and Israel trips. From my perch I have the privilege of seeing the tremendous work being done in each area while also encountering the vulnerabilities felt by their respective practitioners.

This past year, the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the deadliest anti-semitic attack in US history, uncovered deep feelings of insecurity for many Jewish educators. On top of that, the ADL and others have argued that there has been a sharp rise in anti-semitic incidents in the US.

Hate is not the only vulnerability. Many Jewish educational institutions fret over declining membership and enrollment. The educators at such institutions often work with little pay and no benefits. They find themselves competing for time in children’s schedules, which they perceive as being dominated by soccer and other activities.

In the world of higher education, graduate students and adjunct faculty experience similar job insecurity. Additionally, the hollowing out of the humanities along with a highly fraught discourse over Israel threaten Jewish Studies at the university. Jewish Studies too competes for student attention with more career oriented courses and the abundant social activities of college life.

So it was striking that at this historical moment, two conferences I recently attended addressed how people working in this broad field of Jewish education should contend with their power, rather than their limitations. The first was the annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies, a group committed to advancing the research and teaching of Jewish Studies in higher education. The second was the Jewish Futures Conference put on by the Jewish Education Project for an audience of educators working mostly in Jewish K-12 settings.

The conferences represented distinct orientations to Jewish education. Jewish Studies at a secular university, as University of Florida professor Rachel Gordan put it during a roundtable discussion, should be understood as an invitation to think with (that is, by means of) Jews about universal human experiences like inclusion, assimilation, and negotiating tradition and change.

In contrast, for most of the institutions represented at the Jewish Futures Conference, Jewish education is about transmitting particularly Jewish texts, practices, and sensibilities to a new generation of Jewish learners.

Within these contexts, each conference made a strong case for why educators should pay attention to their power, not only to their vulnerability. Indeed, the theme of the Jewish Futures Conference was “Power to the People” and the dynamic speakers each wrestled with this theme.

Yavilah McCoy, CEO of Dimensions Educational Consulting, described the power Jewish educators have in defining inness and outness for a learning community and offered suggestions for how institutions can build what she called a beloved community among difference.

Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, authors of the book New Power, pointed out that young people are increasingly expecting collaboration, transparency, and DIY opportunities in their lives. They want their learning not to be like the game Tetris, with fixed rules and a single player, but rather like Minecraft, where they help make the game and then share it with others.

Jewish educators, they argue, can channel this “new power” to achieve their educational goals. The presenters then empowered participants by giving them time to brainstorm how their institutions might shift as a result of incorporating new power ideas.

My favorite part of the conference was a short exercise led by teaching artist Jonathan Adam Ross. He facilitated “Standing Ovations,” a game in which one volunteer leaves the room while those remaining inside select an action for that person to perform. The person returns and starts to guess what the action is by trying out different possibilities. If the person does a similar action, the audience will clap. If the person gets close, the audience will cheer. When the person gets the action exactly, the audience will give a standing ovation.

At the end of the game, Ross asked the audience to consider the power dynamics present. Most people in the audience, including me at first, assumed that we had all the power over the uninformed volunteer who had to keep guessing which action to perform. Ross pointed out that in fact, the volunteer also had power.

By choosing which actions to perform, he could control how we would react. He could make us clap, make us clap louder, or make us be silent if he chose to do so. This short, simple exercise demonstrated how power and vulnerability can be experienced by the same person simultaneously.

This tension between power and vulnerability also came up frequently at the AJS conference, even though it was not an explicit conference theme. During a roundtable session called “Jewish Studies in the Age of Trump,” Professor Shaul Magid described two predominant paradigms for understanding Jewish history.

The first is positivist in outlook. Historians operating in this paradigm describe the steady progress of Jews to greater and greater levels of acceptance, inclusion, and contribution in the world. The second is lachrymose. Here, historians note the inevitable suffering of Jews in all societies in which they live as a minority.

Magid advocated for a third paradigm, one that would pay attention to the historical turns that produced stability and fragility simultaneously for Jews. He argued that such an approach could build a richer and more complete understanding of the Jewish past and present, one that more fully captured how Jews have experienced power and vulnerability together.

A panel on how the #MeToo movement has affected Jewish women spoke to this idea in a more personal way. Judith Rosenbaum, PhD, the Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, read some of the stories from their Archiving #MeToo Project. She explained that telling stories of vulnerable moments can actually be an assertion of power, made all the stronger by the collective aspect of #MeToo.

Professor Keren McGinity, who published her own #MeToo story last summer, was also on the panel, presenting research on Lilith Magazine’s depictions of single Jewish women. This panel challenged the audience to think about what kind of research on contemporary Jews had been marginalized as a result of the kinds of power imbalances the #MeToo movement uncovered.

These two conferences made the compelling argument that Jewish educators and scholars of Jewish Studies alike, whether in the Hebrew school or the university, must contend with how they exercise power. Doing so should not preclude monitoring vulnerabilities, but this kind of honest reckoning with power can improve learning in many ways.

Teaching with ‘new power’ methods can be more engaging, new ways of looking at power can provide better intellectual frameworks for interpreting material, and perhaps most importantly, paying attention to power can make learning safer and more equitable for all learners.

Daniel Olson is a doctoral candidate in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU, studying disability and inclusion in Jewish education. He is also a research and evaluation consultant for Civic Spirit and a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar alumnus. He lives with his husband, Rabbi Ben Goldberg, in Port Chester, New York.