Teach for Right Now

by Wendy Grinberg

The conversation around evaluating Jewish education programs often turns to this claim: “We won’t know if our programs are successful for ten to twenty years, when we see if the children we are teaching raise their own Jewish children or live Jewish lives as adults.” This mentality is misguided. We are not preparing future Jews in our educational programs, formal or informal. Every student we teach is Jewish now. They deserve a more meaningful life enriched by Judaism today. That is the rationale for Jewish education, plain and simple. If your school or camp or youth program can offer that, you will have a compelling case for the added value of participating and the program and community will be better for it.

For example, why have worship services during religious school? It is not to prepare the child to lead services at the age of bar or bat mitzvah or to participate in services as an adult. We have worship services for second graders because second graders are spiritual beings who need an outlet for their own hopes, thoughts and prayers. Services during religious school look different when informed by this philosophy. Furthermore, they do a better job of preparing a child to participate in services as an adult. What is the reason so many adults don’t feel comfortable in services – because they can’t read the Hebrew fluently, or because they don’t know how to relate to the idea of God, prayer and quiet reflection in a communal setting?

This mindset also helps direct the choice of content taught, which is so important given our limited time with students. For this reason, I’m not a fan of model seders or mock weddings. They tell a story of “what Jews do,” when in the case of a seder, many of our students will have a chance to actually do it, and we could be focusing on how to make that ritual meaningful, and in the case of a wedding (Jewish or otherwise), we have no way of knowing if our students will have one or what it will look like. In any case, unless a member of the school community is actually getting married, the simulation doesn’t have much relevance. On the other hand, when we teach values, they have immediate relevance. One thing that is so powerful about camp is that when you learn about being part of a community, standing up against bullying or being a mensch, you’re likely to have a chance to enact that value in the next 24 hours. Similarly with Jewish ritual.

Another example of the application of the “teach Judaism for right now” mentality is teaching Jewish text. The study of Jewish text is not meant to be solely an academic exercise. Our educational settings need to have a mission that is distinct from say, a college Jewish studies program. One can get a PhD in Jewish Studies with a fondness for all things Jewish, a deep knowledge of Jewish text and history and fluency in Hebrew without actually being Jewish. Our emphasis needs to be on being Jewish and exploring what that means, not learning about Judaism. To return to the idea of text study, Jewish students need to be taught how to interpret Jewish texts, engage with them, relate to them, and teach about them. Students shouldn’t be spending most of their time listening to the stories of the Torah, or even listening to drashot from the rabbi. Jewish educational settings should give students a chance to think about the stories and interpret them. Practicing this habit translates into the immediate relevance of our sacred texts as well as good practice for a bar or bat mitzvah speech and a lifetime of meaningful engagement with text.

When we focus on what a life enriched by Judaism actually looks like for our students of all ages, we have a way of assessing if we are reaching our goals. Do the students ask good questions that get to the heart of the stories, rituals and history and try to relate them to their lives? Do their behaviors reflect Jewish values? Do they have a community to turn to when they have struggles or celebrations? Do they help each other out when they see someone in need? Do they want to come to religious school? Do they have Jewish friends? Do they know whom to ask when they have a question about how to behave or the meaning of some challenging circumstance? If these are our questions, we can change how and what we teach to find out the answers. Asking these kinds of assessment questions can help us improve Jewish education and the way we relate to every member of the community.

Wendy Grinberg is the founder and director of the Jewish Education Lab and clinical faculty at HUC-JIR’s New York School of Education. She is currently earning an Ed.D. at the William Davidson School of Education at Jewish Theological Seminary.