What Does Ground-Up Jewish Education Look Like?

By Joshua Ladon

Last November, when Moishe House gathered a bunch of Jewish educators, funders, residents, and staff to talk about their Jewish educational work and how it reflects the scope of the broader Jewish landscape for emerging adults, we uncovered an interesting gap in the field: the skills and content demanded by institutions serving Jews between the ages of 18-35 (at least) are not the same as the ones needed for training Jewish leadership for jobs in synagogues and schools.

Existing programs for Jewish spiritual and educational leadership, writ large, focus on providing training for the needs of existing Jewish institutions. This makes sense, as most of the seminaries which train rabbis in America were born out of a need to train religious leadership for their synagogues. This is why most seminaries are tied to a movement. Moreover, as Jewish institutions, specifically synagogues, flourished in the early and middle of the 20th century, these seminaries developed programs for advanced academics, educators, and cantors. But in 2019, as synagogue membership continues to wane among non-Orthodox Jews, and new forms of Jewish communal organizing grows, it begs the question: What type of Jewish leadership do these new forms of Jewish gathering demand?

In service of this question, it is valuable to consider the context of these emerging institutions. Moishe House is a useful example, as it is both broad in scale (more than 60,000 participated in its programs in 2018) and takes a decentralized view of Jewish educational leadership, in favor of a peer-to-peer learning model. For Moishe House, the living room and the kitchen (not to mention their immersive retreats) are the central locations for a Jewish experience that imbue content with action. Jewish knowledge is learned through living, as much as through text.

As my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman wrote, “The traditional Jew does not begin with immediacy.” That is to say, through a deep spiritual experience with the Divine, “but by listening to a story from his or her parents, by first participating in the drama of the collective standing before God at Sinai.” Hartman is arguing that Jewish life requires experience, emotional connection, and action, as much as cognitive or spiritual knowledge. Moishe House is trying to cultivate these Jewish home experiences for people, when they are establishing their independence and building their own homes for the first time.

More radical is Moishe House’s adoption of a peer-to-peer educational model, which asks residents and retreat leaders to act as Jewish guides for their friends. This provides educational opportunities and challenges. In the best situations, this is a model that is deeply empowering. When people have to figure out things together and teach one another, they often learn faster and feel more ownership for their learning (see Boud, Cohen & Sampson). This feels Jewish, as it is a similar philosophy that undergirds havruta learning. As Holzer and Kent have argued, there are potential dispositions to learning in havruta (becoming good listeners, developing a deeper sense of caring for the other), but one also cultivates a greater sense of the text’s meaning and one’s personal understanding through the encounter with others. Peer-to-peer learning provides learners with ways to take ownership of their learning, self-assess one’s progress, cultivate community, and make meaning together.

While only a portion of Moishe House’s programming is explicitly Jewish-education focused, by rooting its work in homes and immersive experiences, the goal is to tie Jewish learning to the broader panorama of residents’ and participants’ lives. Sharon Daloz-Parks has identified, “the promise and vulnerability of emerging adulthood lie in the experience of the birth of critical awareness and consequently in the dissolution and recomposition of the meaning of self, other, world, and ‘God.’” This is a ripe time for self-definition and a moment where people are looking for meaning greater than themselves.

Most (though not all) peer-to-peer models are based on the classroom, in which the teacher plays an active role in curating material and helping participants build the skills to learn from one another. This is what makes Holzer and Kent’s work on havruta so profound. It recognizes that there are skills one has to cultivate (openness, creativity, inquiry, honesty) to be successful at learning from others. In the case of Moishe House, there is no rabbi or educator living in each home or catering to the residents. The residents themselves take on the roles of guide, or in some cases, invite them in. While the opportunity in this model is the possibility of empowered, excited learning and growth, it can also lead to stumbling around in the dark. It begs the question, what type of religious-educational-cultural leadership can support this type of programming?

While Moishe House has taken a particularly acute stance toward empowered participation (and away from “sage on the stage” religious and educational leadership), its home-based, decentralized, up-from-the-people approach is reflective of other trends in Jewish communal life (Base Hillel, One Table) and broader American trends.

Casper ter Kuile, who recently wrote his own response to Moishe House’s education summit, and his organization How We Gather, notes that religious/cultural life in America is more diffuse, while simultaneously more invested in authentic meaning. How We Gather call this “an unbundling and remixing” of traditional institutional structures and notions of religious and secular. Until now, these programmatic innovations, both in the Jewish world and throughout the American landscape, have often been spearheaded by iconoclastic risk-takers who stepped outside existing communal structures to build their own organizations. Especially given the numbers of participants in Moishe House, and the success of programs like Hillel’s Senior Jewish Educators, who also brought Jewish learning out of synagogues, camps, and Hebrew schools, and into dorms, fraternities, and the quad, it is time to begin exploring the training needs for the next generation of Jewish educational leadership.

Joshua Ladon is the West Coast Director of Education for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He is a doctoral candidate at the William Davidson School of Education, Jewish Theological Seminary.