The Jewish Educator: The Owner of Jewish Knowledge?

45 residents from 20 houses and 18 countries met at the International Resident Conference to gather, learn and celebrate together in Prague, Czech Republic #Moishe10
45 residents from 20 houses and 18 countries met at the International Resident Conference to gather, learn and celebrate together in Prague, Czech Republic #Moishe10

By Hannah Gaventa

I have always struggled with the balance between education and facilitation. When we educate about an idea or concept, what gives us the right to impose a message or agenda on our learners? Who determines whether what we have to say is interesting, useful or important?

In my role as International Director of Jewish Education at Moishe House, I’ve noticed that a predominant trend with Moishe House residents and community members around the world is an ever-present thirst to explore Judaism and their Jewish heritage, develop a complex and multi-faceted Jewish identity and discover how or what role Judaism has to play in their lives. However, they are not interested in someone telling them what their identity should look like, or which parts of Judaism they should be engaging with on a regular basis. In my experience, Jewish young adults want to feel empowered to create their own Jewish spaces and develop their own creative Jewish programming on topics they feel passionate about that relate to their lives.

However, I’ve often found that leaders and educators shy away from losing their position as the “omniscient educator” who owns the wisdom and knowledge. It is far easier to have an agenda, an aim for a lesson, or produce a set of clear objectives for the learner. Any deviation from the topic can cause panic and dismay in the best of educators. The idea of providing an open space for the learner, where there are no right and wrong answers for the lesson, is threatening to the authority of the educator. The prospect of losing this power and authority can be frightening.

I believe this ‘loss’ can allow for the greater growth of a learner, and rather becomes a leveler, which can only promote the confidence and strength of the learner. At the same time, this enables the educator to have the necessary humility and flexibility vital for the role.

With the education team at Moishe House, together with my colleagues Tanya Zaytseva and Rabbi Brad Greenstein, I aim to build the capacity of our residents and provide them with multiple opportunities to question and develop independently, whilst maintaining a mentoring and supportive relationship. This balance enables me to provide an educational atmosphere where questions are encouraged and critical thinking is celebrated. I certainly don’t have all the answers, and by giving away some of my authority, I too can become the learner in my interactions with Moishe House residents.

When I first met Balint, a resident of Moishe House Budapest, he told me ”I just have so many questions.” Balint first started to discover his Judaism through Birthright, and soon became involved with the Jewish community of Budapest, moving into Moishe House in February 2016. Since moving into Moishe House, Balint found a space to explore the answers to some of his questions and to continue to navigate his Jewish journey. Since October, Balint and Moishe House Budapest have run a diverse range of Jewish learning programmes in their house such as Kabbalat Shabbat services, challah baking, a conversation about women in Yiddish literature and even a session about Brit Mila.

In order to make these informed decisions to choose our own Jewish paths, we need to have the skills to be able to research our questions as well as the basic knowledge to understand and interpret the answers. At Moishe House, we always learn for the sake of doing, and our residents who are passionate about building community are the ones who are going to be change makers in both the Jewish and wider world.

When we run an International Jewish Learning Retreat, we create a space for our participants to explore Judaism, push the boundaries, learn new skills and share with each other the challenges they face in their community building. In May, we hosted a Jewish Learning Retreat in Brussels, just a couple of months after the terrible attacks in the city. To see 30 young people from 12 cities come together just to learn more about the festival of Shavuot and explore Social Change initiatives through a Jewish lens, was truly inspiring.

Nathaniel from Mumbai participated in our Shavuot and Social Change Jewish Learning Retreat, having spent a number of months at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Learning, one of our partner organisations. At Pardes, Nathaniel had been developing his Jewish learning skills, and during our Retreat, we were able to give him the opportunity to facilitate a Jewish learning session for the first time ever for his peers. Nathaniel led a fascinating workshop exploring the laws around poverty and Shavuot, incorporating many stories of his life growing up in India. Nathaniel expressed his gratitude to Moishe House for giving him this opportunity, and told us how excited he was to “keep ideas flowing” between the global community of participants.

I hope to be able to provide Moishe House residents with the confidence to make their own educated choices, which can only have a positive impact on their lives and communities. The education team is there only to support the residents and community members as they progress on their Jewish journey. And we want to pass on the Jewish knowledge and ‘authority’ to all of our young adults. There is no reason why each and every Jewish young adult can be the owner of their Jewish knowledge!

Hannah Gaventa, Moishe House’s International Director of Jewish Education, can be reached at hannah@moishehouse.org