Responding to the Question “Mi Anochi/Who Am I?”: Experiential Jewish Educators as Narrators

who am IBy Alisha Pedowitz

In Moses’ first encounter with G-d in the burning bush, the first question he asks is “mi anochi/Who am I?” In addition to being a question of doubt (“why me?”), at the core of this question is also Moses grappling with his identity – “who am I? And, how do I fit into the bigger story?”

The great bible scholar Rabbi Moshe Greenberg z”l suggested in Visions of Jewish Education that the role of Jewish education is to help address the hunger of individuals to know “whence he came and whither is he going.” Greenberg asserts that within each of us is an innate desire to make meaning of the world, and that Jewish text, tradition, and sense of peoplehood is rich enough to satisfy this desire.

As an experiential Jewish educator who works primarily with teens, I grapple with how to do this. How do we help Jewish youth answer the question “mi anochi?” in a way that connects them to the larger story of our people – our rich history, traditions, values, community, text, rituals – while also being deeply personal, relevant, and offering them an inner sense of self and a personal story for who they are, who they want to be, and how they want to exist in the world?

This grappling has led me to a new understanding of what it means to be an Experiential Jewish Educator. In my role of helping youth wrestle with the question “mi anochi,” I have come to see myself most predominantly as a Narrator.

Within any story or film, it is the narrator who gives us the arc of the story, and points out relevant moments and insights along the way, to aid us in our own interpretation of what is happening. When it comes to working with Jewish youth, I have found that the most salient aspect of any program for the participants is the bigger story that I narrate for them to frame the experience, and then giving them the opportunity, through reflection activities, to make meaning out of their interaction with this story, and integrate it into their own self-story.

Narrative identity theory supports this approach. This theory explains that our identities are formed as a way to make meaning of our life experiences, to integrate the stories we encounter, and our own experiences, into a story of who we are. It is an evolving story of self that we use to frame our understanding of Greenberg’s question – “whence [we] came and whither [we] are going.” Thus, as an educator setting up Jewish learning experiences, I am narrating for my participants throughout the experience the larger story that I want them to interact with and interpret, and giving them opportunities to find ways to integrate this story into their own evolving story of self.

For example, in a service learning program where a group of teens will be volunteering at various service sites, the story I usually tell them to frame the experience is that, “central to Judaism is the importance of empowering others – to help give someone the strength, confidence, power, or skills to have control over her/his own life or future.” We then engage with various Jewish texts and ideas that support this. Before boarding buses for their various service projects, I reconvene them, synthesize the themes we have discussed and connect them back to the bigger story, and then ask them to choose from small slips of paper the particular Jewish text or idea that most resonates with them. They put these in their pockets, with the instruction to use that particular idea as the lens through which they view the organization as they volunteer – so that the narration of these ideas continues even as they are off volunteering. After returning, we discuss and reflect on their experiences of the day, using these lenses to unpack what they saw, did, and felt, with me continuing to narrate and connect their reflections back to the larger themes and story that I have framed for them of “empowerment.” The end result is that, in their own inner wrestling with the question “mi anochi,” they use this experience to understand themselves as people who have the ability and desire to interact with others in a way that enhances confidence, strength, and ability, viewed through these Jewish lenses. An exciting day of community service has been carefully narrated to tell this story, and in turn, integrated into the participants’ self-stories.

The quest to answer the question “mi anochi?” is a lifelong one. For Jewish educators, it is our job to help give others access to the rich set of Jewish traditions, texts, ideas, history, culture, and peoplehood – the “story” of who we are – to help aid in this quest. And, we can achieve this by viewing ourselves as Narrators – pointing out the bigger story, and helping others interpret and integrate aspects of this story into their own story of self.

Alisha Pedowitz is a Specialist in Teen Experiential Education at BJE: Builders of Jewish Education in Los Angeles. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Stanford University, as well as a dual MBA in Nonprofit Management and MAEd with a Concentration in Experiential Education from American Jewish University.