What Makes it Jewish?

By Shuki Taylor

A frequent question often surfaces in the organizational space I inhabit:
“What makes this program / experience / initiative a Jewish one?”

What makes this question complicated is that it assumes that there is a ‘non-Jewish’ baseline to what we do, and that through some sort of reframing or intervention we must make it Jewish, and that there is some sort of silver bullet that turns non-Jewish experiences into Jewish ones.

The “what makes it Jewish?” question, however, might also be strongly connected to another question: “who makes it Jewish?” I say this because perhaps, in asking these questions, we’re also questioning our own self-confidence (is what I am, and what I am doing, Jewish enough?) hoping the answer will soothe our insecurities.

Indeed, over the course of many centuries the interplay between what and who questions have been woven into the fabric of educational discourse in general, and Jewish education in particular.

Below, I would like to offer an example taken from the M² Senior Educators Cohort that demonstrates this interplay as it relates to the “Jewishness” of an experience.

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A few months ago, on a radiant San Diego day, in a resort surrounded by sea water and docks, I walked into a staged Shiva (mourning) room. It was the Shiva room of the matriarch Rachel, where she was mourning her barrenness. Much like her reincarnation in the book-made-TV-series A Handmaids Tale, she was enacting how a group of educators on our program interpreted the verse “give me children, or I shall die” (Genesis 30:1).

The staged Shiva room was designed to engage all five senses; deep darkness illuminated by a burning candle; a lingering scent of incense creating an out of body experience; a woman, meek, huddled, covered in black, head cloaked, weeping.

In this interpretation, walking into the room, I received a variety of prompts inviting me to examine the ways in which, like Rachel, I am excluded and included in my own social circles.

This was one of eight presentations designed by the forty members of the M² Senior Educators Cohort. Their task was not simple. They were asked to create experiences out of four texts in the book of Genesis, based on their own interpretations, all of which put the value of community – and how we currently understand and experience it – to the test.

What further compounded the exploration of the value of community was that each of the presentations was designed collaboratively, over the course of three days, by a group comprised of highly diverse educators – ranging from organizations such as Moishe House, the Hartman Institute and Touro College and locations such as Seattle, Cincinnati and Yerucham. The struggle of working together was not simple, but it most definitely mirrored what it takes to create and form a community.

A while later, when deconstructing each of the eight presentations, we contemplated how Jewish stories of the past can illuminate the struggles and opportunities of the present, helping to form the values which can guide our future. More specifically, we explored how Jewish educators, through the deliberate application of pedagogic frameworks and methodological tools, can curate purposeful and stimulating experiences that are infused with meaning.

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In our lives, through our struggles and revelations, through the places we visit and people we meet – we engage in an ongoing process of values exploration: the process of valuing. As we encounter new experiences, we examine what we might learn from them, and how we might become better and different in their wake. These values are animated not only by the experiences that educators create, but also, they are illuminated and enriched by the Jewish texts that are ours to excavate. This, to me, is the space in which the ‘who’ and ‘what’ questions of what makes an experience a Jewish one, begin to become one.

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Whether by excavating texts, harnessing senses, developing narratives or exploring memory formation, at M²: we work to provide educators with approaches, frameworks and methods to create rich experiences that matter.

Those seeking to create experiences that matter can now apply for the third M2 Senior Educators Cohort, generously supported by the Maimonides Fund.

Shuki Taylor is the CEO of M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education