Refocusing in the Midst of a Pandemic: Why Do We Do Jewish Education?
By Faustine Goldberg-Sigal
Why do we do Jewish education? Why do we need to give Jewish education, as educators or as parents? And why do we need to receive Jewish education as a child or an adult – in short, as a Jew?
This question is THE most essential question of our profession and calling. It may even seem trivial in black letters on a blog page. And yet, how many times a month, or even a year, do we ask it? Perhaps during a final academic dissertation, perhaps during a job interview – but beyond? Very quickly, the “what” replaces the “why”: which content, which modalities, which medium, which frequency, etc.
I remember one of my teachers at the Pardes Institute who explained to me his feeling that the formal vs. informal education dichotomy had largely been replaced by one of voluntary vs. compulsory education. For example, in a Jewish school, children do not voluntarily choose to join Jewish education, but are dropped off, more or less on time, every morning by their parents. Even parents themselves may not be completely free to enroll their child in Jewish school due to constraints related to the Jewish calendar (such as not having a Shabbat class) or practice (such as kosher food for lunch) . In a world of traditional halachic observance, talmud torah, i.e. the study of Torah is a mitzvah, i.e. divine commandment, and to devote oneself to it is therefore not a voluntary but obligatory endeavour. Students in a yeshiva in Bnei Brak are therefore also in a compulsory relationship with Jewish education.
Conversely, in a youth movement (and especially as children become more and more actively involved in it as counselors, etc.), in a Moishe House, in a summer program at the Pardes Institute, and in Jewish communities where the concept of commandment is more fluid, Jewish education is chosen voluntarily. In these specific contexts, professionals, beneficiaries and their parents, if they are minors, engage voluntarily – because they want to and that they think Jewish education will bring them something. You could sign up for a yoga class, do some pro-bono legal or medical consultations, or just stay at home and watch a good movie. The choice of Jewish education therefore implies having asked the question at one time, even unconsciously, and having answered it: “Why do Jewish education?”
In truth, this question should, in my opinion, be the basis of any Jewish education effort, voluntary or compulsory, but it must be noted that, caught in the routine of timetables, emails and quantified objectives, we lose sight of it. As such, the Coronavirus crisis represented an unprecedented opportunity. Think of the Maslow pyramid: while the actors of Jewish education in their diversity were worried about their health, the health of their loved ones, the maintenance of their job and therefore their rent, their pantry-eaters, we have back to the wall. Why do Jewish education in the heart of a pandemic?
When I speak to Moishe House residents who have recently become unemployed, or who are essential workers, or whose parents are hospitalized – why would they need Jewish education? The extreme nature of this situation allowed me to return to the core of what I think is the fundamental issue of Jewish education in general, and specifically in my work at Moishe House: Judaism conveys meaning and Judaism conveys connection. As people seek to understand and word the tornado we are going through – and to share this experience with others, Judaism is our resource. There are of course other possible resources, but the one that we have at our fingertips, and which turns out to be particularly rich and proven on these issues, is Judaism. Our religion, as much in its history, its rituals as its vocabulary, is a succession of traumas and resurrections, of hope in plan A and of commitment in plan B. In truth, the Judaism that we live, i.e. Rabbinical Judaism is in essence a response, a plan B, created in the ashes of the major collective trauma that was the destruction of the Second Temple.
Shavuot has proven to be an excellent test of our need to refocus on the “why.” The world seems to be going through so many crises so deep that there is no time for a cosmetic or superficial celebration of this holiday. If it’s about feeling fleeting joy, all you have to do is put on some music and make a good meal. We will not be able to celebrate Shavuot as if nothing had happened – and we will not be able to live our daily life, without confronting it with Shavuot’s questions. (Or maybe we will deliberately choose to celebrate Shavuot by deciding to try not to think and talk about the Coronavirus, but that would still be a negative answer.)
As our residents of Moishe House around the world prepared for Shavuot, we saw, in different ways, the question of the intergenerational relationship emerge. The tragedy of the physical and social isolation of the elderly in western societies has become even more acute during the Pandemic – and our residents sought simple and deep ways to make a difference. In Sydney, Luis and Michelle taught their community during the Tikkun Leil Shavuot “The Torah that we receive from our grandparents”: how we can (and should) learn and transmit the Torah, and thus live the Revelation of Sinai at a personal scale through their stories, recipes and objects. In Paris, Dan and Léa, after having spent hundreds of hours shopping for isolated elderly people, asked the grandmother of one of their friends to lead them in a text study – so that this person sort of his isolation, and that their friends see an elderly person not in the position of assisted beneficiary, but of a driver, who knows and contributes. In Rome, Alessandra, Alessandro and Valentina began to collect and disseminate through their monthly newsletters the past and present stories of the grandparents of their community. In Barcelona, ??Gabi was able to invite her New Zealand grandparents to join Zoom in the events she organizes with her roommates. In Jerusalem, Sara, Oshik, Bracha and Shraga spent time helping elderly people install and use tools such as WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom, etc. so they don’t lose touch with their loved ones. And there are probably still dozens of examples of which I am not aware.
Through all these initiatives, our residents have provided a striking response to the question “Why do Jewish education?” and “Why do Shavuot?” We celebrated Shavuot because our tradition gives us this conscious opportunity to learn and transmit, to bond with the generations that precede us and to prepare the ground for those who come, to find in a millennial conversation meaning and the feeling of a tangible connection with people, whether they are close physically, geographically, temporally, or not. Shavuot was our opportunity, our language – and our exhortation to create, in the midst of the pandemic, meaning and connection through intergenerational relationships. This commitment to the why we had for Shavuot could and should be our focus, in another way, in each of the Jewish education initiatives we take.
None of these questions should represent a novelty, or a paradigm shift, nor the fact of actively asking the question of “why” in our mission, nor of seeking to honor our elders. But the Coronavirus crisis certainly represented a unique opportunity to remember and respond to it with creativity and courage. When this episode ends, it’s up to all of us to make sure that the question “Why do Jewish education?” continues to guide our efforts on a daily and concrete basis, and that the revelations we have had under pressure become long-term commitments.
Originally published in French on JEducationWorld and translated by Faustine Goldberg-Sigal prior to Shavuot and the protests currently taking place in the USA.
Faustine Goldberg-Sigal is the International Director of Jewish Education of Moishe House. She lives in Paris, France.