The Key Ingredient to Jewish Education

By Rabbi Brad Greenstein

I have a friend, a native New Yorker, who thinks that if you put pineapple on pizza, it’s no longer pizza. We all know these food connoisseurs – perhaps you yourself are one – who likes to stake their claim on what constitutes authenticity. Coffee without caffeine shouldn’t count as coffee, a s’more made with dark chocolate instead of a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar isn’t really a s’more … you get the idea.

At Moishe House, we’ve come to the conclusion that when it comes to Jewish education, the essential and non-negotiable ingredient is traditional Jewish text. Jewish education can (and should!) be experiential, innovative and compelling, deploying the latest modalities. But without incorporating traditional Jewish text into a Jewish education session, well, it’s like coffee without caffeine.

This conversation all started with one question that kept coming up among our staff and the young adult community builders around the world that we support: “What counts as a Jewish education program?” That is to say, what needs to happen to transform a cultural or social Jewish program into a Jewish education program?

In late 2018, we gathered Moishe House participants and staff, multidisciplinary thought leaders, funders and academics for a thought summit to see if it was possible to gain consensus on the answer to that question. And there wasn’t a clear consensus on the concept that text was the critical factor. There were also voices that asserted the necessity for education to be embodied and holistic, as well as to incorporate action and follow up. Since we are living in an age where institutions and identities are unbundling, some have lobbied to remove the need for boundaries and restrictions all together. If there is personal growth and learning, call it education; and if Jewish people are doing it, call it Jewish education.

But text doesn’t always have to be just black and white letters on a photocopied page. It can be conveyed through narrative or art, and it can and should come from a diversity of voices and origins. Text has always been home for the Jewish people, and we want to continue nurturing that sense of home. The mosaic of Jewish thought, history, culture and art can all be traced to our canon of literature, the texts that capture our prized ideas over the arc of Jewish experience. I can’t think of any Jewish subject matter, however abstract, that doesn’t have roots in traditional Jewish text – so why not include that anchor as a way of framing even the most abstract Jewish ideas?

There are those who say text is old-fashioned, but to leave text out in the name of modernity is really just a cop-out, because you can easily have both. Traditional texts most often have a greater impact when art, creativity or movement is integrated into the teaching. And modern poetry/prose, embodied practices, artistic growth and community building become even more meaningful when deeply interwoven with a gem from tradition.

Following the 2018 summit, the Moishe House Jewish education staff gathered to create a tool that would make the entire concept of text-centric Jewish education more concrete for Jewish young adults around the world. The result of that work is the Moishe House Jewish Learning Tree, a rubric that will now serve as a guide for facilitators crafting educational programs.

This rubric accommodates, and more importantly, encourages the most creative and innovative modalities/approaches to Jewish education, with the interweaving of Jewish text, because we have concluded that Jewish education, however experimental and imaginative, is rooted with Jewish text, and we want to share that message with others. With the help of the Jewish Learning Tree, we’re hopeful that Moishe House community builders will feel empowered to create Jewish education programming that is deep and impactful for their peers in communities around the world and that even those who have never led or participated in this type of educational setting will walk away feeling confident and empowered by their experience.

In my ideal world, the leading pluralistic Jewish education organizations will come together to affirm the inclusion of text as the key ingredient of Jewish education. For now, we’ll focus on Moishe House sharing the message of the critical nature of text, using the Jewish Learning Tree, and giving young adults around the world the opportunity to grow and explore together, with text as their guidepost.

Rabbi Brad Greenstein is Moishe House Senior Director of Jewish Learning.