The Dance of the Four Children

by Daniel Libenson

The Torah tells of four children: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know to ask. (Passover Haggadah)

Jewish education must be a two-step dance: provoke a hunger to learn, feed that hunger. Provoke huger, feed hunger; provoke, feed. But we don’t focus enough on the first step, and our efforts can look more like lurching than dancing.

Working with young people during the transition to adulthood brings this issue into dramatic relief (although the same paradigm is relevant at every stage of life). Freed from parental supervision, most university students do not seek out Jewish educational experiences because they do not perceive that Jewish knowledge can feed any hunger that they have.

Like the Passover haggadah’s fourth child – the she’eino yodea lish’ol, usually translated as the child who “does not know how to ask,” but also capable of holding the translation “does not know to ask” – Jewish young people (and not only young people) are not necessarily hostile to learning, but Jewish questions simply do not cross their minds. The child who does not know to ask is not necessarily too young to ask, as we often imagine him at the seder. He might also be a sophisticated person who simply does not realize that this subject could interest him.

The seder’s four children can represent a developmental progression, and our goal for children who do not ask questions is to turn them into “simple children” – askers of basic questions – on the road to becoming wise children who ask mature questions. (The “wicked” stage is significant in this story as a normal developmental milestone, but its discussion is beyond the scope of this short essay.) When the simple child asks simply, “What is this?” she has actually undergone a dramatic transformation: she is now an active seeker of Jewish knowledge. Step one of the two-step has been accomplished.

It is tempting to blame the (potential) learner for a lack of curiosity. But why should someone be curious about something they have never experienced as interesting? It is the teacher’s responsibility to motivate the learner to learn. Curiosity is provoked by a sense of wonder, a feeling that learning more will unlock a mystery that I care about solving. So, we have to give people a reason to care.

How do we move a person from non-asking to asking? The haggadah’s instruction – at ptach lo (you should open the conversation for him) – is the only reasonable approach in that it places the full onus of responsibility upon the teacher, but what kind of opening will prompt more questions?

A few weeks ago, a member of my staff told me that our student interns – part of a national program that hires previously uninvolved students to reach out to their peers – were asking for “Judaism 101”-type material in their weekly training sessions. Until that point, we had been presenting them with much more “advanced” material, such as mining the stories of Moses for deep lessons about leadership or looking at the attractions and problematics of the concept of chosenness. Our staff discussed whether we had made a mistake in building the curriculum and whether next year perhaps we ought to start with Judaism 101 and only get to the more sophisticated stuff later. But we concluded that our original approach was the right one and had succeeded: students who would not have asked basic questions a year ago and who probably would have been bored and turned off by Judaism 101 were now demanding it. We had presented challenging material that was relevant to the work that these students were doing (leadership) or that touched on some of the areas of their greatest discomfort about being Jewish (such as chosenness), and even if much of this material was not fully understood, it gave the students a sense that this Jewish stuff might have real value. They had developed a hunger to understand better. Only because we gave them a sense that learning more might be worthwhile did they begin to actively seek a Jewish foundation.

This approach to Jewish education can be counter-intuitive. It feels natural to start at the beginning, to build a foundation and then to build on that foundation and keep building from there. And that approach makes sense if the learner is fully committed to a long-term learning endeavor.

But in working with Jews that do not yet have this commitment, the best approach is often to start with something that cannot be fully understood by the learner but that is exciting, tantalizing, challenging, and relevant. And the two-step needs to be successfully repeated again and again until a person develops confidence that there really is something compelling for her.

What is institutionally challenging about the educational two-step is that the first step must be much more individualized than the second. To paraphrase Tolstoy, committed Jewish learners are all alike, but every disengaged non-asker needs to be engaged differently. Students with a passion for the arts or for social justice would not be transformed into active seekers by the leadership stories we studied with students who were in a leadership internship. The strain this puts on our creativity, staffing models, and economic models is immense because we need to find ways to connect with every Jewish individual in order to understand what they care about and what will drive them to want to learn more and to deliver that magnetic first step in the two-step.

A number of possibilities present themselves. Space considerations allow me to list just a few:

  • A cadre of volunteers could be trained and deployed by educating institutions to build relationships with potential learners and take responsibility for the individualized first step.
  • Using part-time staff is a powerful approach because it gives a single institution a broader array of interest areas with which to connect to potential learners, but there is a conflict with the need of talented educators to have full-time work. Perhaps educating institutions could pool resources to hire educators full-time and divide this time among the institutions.
  • We need to develop a new curriculum for educators, whether volunteer or paid, that emphasizes mentoring and similar individualized approaches to opening the conversation, as opposed to classroom skills. This kind of work is somewhere in between what we call formal Jewish education and informal Jewish education.

By recognizing the educational two-step and committing ourselves to developing new ways to develop the first step, we may yet learn the dance of the four children.

Daniel Libenson is the Executive Director of the University of Chicago Hillel. An Avi Chai fellow, he is also developing a think tank and training center for Jewish innovation.

This post is from the series Growing Jewish Education in Challenging Times.