Waiting for Superman: New CAJE, Old Battle

by David Steiner

Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates invention. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving … conflict is a sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.
John Dewey

The highlight of New CAJE #4 held at Nichols College, just west of Boston, was not the exemplary learning or rich celebrations of Jewish culture. It was the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the debate about the nature of Jewish education for the 21st century, which was set up like the famous heavyweight championship fight between Mohammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire and played out like the battle of the Mitnagdim and the Hassidim.

In one corner, there was Dr. David Bryfman, Director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at the Jewish Education Project in New York, and, in the other was Rabbi Danny Lehmann, President of Hebrew College of Boston. The room was packed, the stakes were high and, in place of a referee, Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox moderated. There were no KO’s, but the crowd, passing judgment with the SMS app on their smart phones, gave a lean victory to Dr. Bryfman with the cellular poll asking which speaker would be most accepted by the audience member’s congregation or school board.

What were the stakes? The debate was set up to address the future of Jewish education. How important is Jewish literacy to the 21st century learner? What is the importance of Judaic text-based education in experiential learning? What is the importance of recreation (a sense of fun and belonging) in a Jewish education context? These were the questions, and if you removed references to the 21st century and experiential education, you might just think you were transported back to the era of apostasy following the false messiahs of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Standing in for the Hassidim was Dr. Bryfman, a new Baal Shem Tov, hoping to convince the crowd that the individual experience of a child, at the center of Jewish education, is best served with “positive Jewish experiences,” while his opponent, the Mitnaged, standing in for the Gra, Rabbi Danny Lehmann took the position that positive experiences are not a substitute for engagement with Jewish texts, which is at the center of Judaism.

To help decide whose vision of Jewish education is more appropriate for the 21st century, this writer turns back to the first century of the Common Era when a similar battle was being waged. In preparation for the Jewish people’s departure from their home turf in Roman occupied Palestine, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva argued the question: “Which is greater, education or action?” Tarfon insisted on experience, while Akiva defended learning. In the end, the rest of the rabbis settled the dispute by saying: “Education is greater because it leads to [proper] action.” Notice that education comes first, and, more importantly, not all action is proper.

In making his case, Dr. Bryfman delivered a body blow with an anecdote. He told the story of a woman who remembered the food she ate to break her fast on Tisha B’Av over two decades earlier at a Jewish summer camp. His point, we remember and identify with the world we experience. But Rabbi Lehmann, the southpaw, came back with an upper cut by lamenting the lack of substance and asking what is the benefit of an identity which is hallow? He asked why should we remain Jewish if it doesn’t stand for anything. Essentially, he was saying that there are many identities out there, and educators help to define Jewishness so young Jews will choose our identity.

Experiential education, John Dewey’s brainchild, was the centerpiece of the New CAJE debate, but there was a distinctly non-Dewey feeling in the air. Experience was being touted by Dr. Bryfman as a panacea for the ills of a religious school system that was failing our youth, while Rabbi Lehmann sounded like the naysayers of Progressive education. Both thought their educational philosophy is a natural outgrowth of Dewey, who would respond to them, “[A]ny movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities.” It reminds me of the joke about the two scholars fighting over the true meaning of the Rambam. “My Monides is right.” “No, My Monides.”

Remaining loyal to Dewey, we can say that, “There is no such thing as educational value in the abstract.” Kal v’chomer, if this is so, then how can there be a panacea.

In my session, Exposing the Gorilla’s in the Complimentary School Classroom (and thinking about what to feed them), a group of religious school directors introduced themselves by telling each other where they are from and the particular challenges of their schools. We looked at this question through the lens’s of geography, demography and finance. What we discovered was just how complicated our situation is.

The problems of Jewish education are numerous but not uniform. (Repeat 3x) Like the seventy faces of Torah, each educator faces different challenges. Some of us are in big cities with large Jewish populations. In these cities, day school becomes an option, most often, when the public school system is failing. The consequence tends to be two forms of day schools; Jewish day schools and private schools for Jews. In all densely populated Jewish communities, the synagogue doesn’t need to be the center of Jewish life and bagels at the local deli may satisfy families’ needs for Jewish community and ritual. In small towns, isolation from highly trained teachers can be a major obstacle. One participant in my session told me about the positive role the Institute for Southern Jewish Life has in supporting these schools. Many are limited by finance. They can’t afford professional development for their teachers, and some even need to draft unpaid teacher volunteers. ISJL supports these schools through conferences, teacher mentorships and ongoing support.

I could go on about the challenges of the various religious schools, but my goal is not to make lists. I want to direct the reader’s attention to the fact that discussions about the nature of religious pedagogy, whether it is experiential or more like a traditional beit midrash, mislead us into believing that we can find uber remedies. In American public education, this is called “Waiting for Superman.” It doesn’t work. For millennia, Jewish communities have been led by the mara d’atra, usually rabbis, but essentially the “teacher of the place” whose charge it is to serve as a facilitator of Jewish knowledge and practice. Left to it’s own devices, this system wouldn’t work because the communities would eventually become so disparate in there beliefs that they would not find a common core. This is why they chose a big Jewish library of content to stand at the center of the curriculum. Each mara d’atra would have his favorite books and ways of teaching and expertise, but they would all emanate from a common set of constantly developing knowledge, an oral Torah. Left alone, this wouldn’t work either because some communities allowed their Torah to include false messiahs and unaccepted revelations. This is when the librarians came in and said, as I learned from my teacher Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, there need to be some borders for Judaism. This is where our system of checks and balances comes to play. We are pluralistic because we want the entire family at the table. It also teaches us to be humble and not assume that we have the monopoly on what’s right. We are tolerant because we stand for something, which means that not everything goes, i.e. we cannot have people at our table that will not sit with everyone at the table. And we allow some deviance because the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes go askew, and we have to address issues that we never thought would come up, like we do in conducting wars against terror or finding ways to accept the sexuality of all our family members.

Rabbi Lehmann is right that we have to look to our own library and grind our teeth in pursuit of these answers, and Dr. Bryfman is right in our need to create laboratories, a term I borrow from Dewey, where Jewish students can have Jewish experiences that make them want to be members of the tribe, and both of them are wrong if they think that theirs should be the dominant paradigm of our religious schools.

In Hebrew, we have three letter roots for our words, and often they become the source of a system of binary thinking that can be wonderful and terrible in the same moment. The root, shin, chet, reish, can create the word shachar, dawn, the beginning of light, and shachor, black, the absence of light. This gives us a spectrum on which to find ourselves. The same can be said for pey, shin, tet, which can create pshat, the simple or literary meaning, or moofshat, abstraction. Again, a binary. It’s the same idea that Bialik wanted us to learn in his brilliant essay, Aggadah and Halacha, Legend and Law. Each is the side of a coin. They cannot exist without the other. Think heaven and Earth, water and land, the workweek and Shabbat.

There are, however, other paradigms in Judaism. Seventy faces of Torah is a three dimensional paradigm. It recognizes the limitations of spectrums of thought. Seventy faces of Torah is why we need more organizations like New CAJE because Jewish educators need to come together and discuss our challenges and constantly brainstorm their solutions and share what works and what doesn’t. This is why I went to New CAJE, not for the heavyweights and their rumbles, not to make choices between mitnagdim and Hassidim, but to be in the company of my peers and colleagues and to face the challenges of the 21st century without waiting for Superman.

David J. Steiner, Ed.D. is working to complete his rabbinic ordination. He has been a congregational director of education for both the Reform and Conservative synagogues, and he recently returned to America from a fellowship at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.