Who Are We Educating Today?

by Zachary Lasker, Ed.D.

Our conversation seemed so innocuous, as a friend told me about her Saturday night plan to give out candy to trick-or-treating kids in her apartment building. A mental calendar popped up in my head confirming that Saturday night would be October 27th – four days before the October 31st date of Halloween. This didn’t seem right.

Me: “Hold on a second – why Saturday night?”

Friend: “Well, it’s hard to squeeze trick-or-treating in on a school night for young kids.”

Me: (pondering) “I suppose that makes sense. This way young kids and parents can trick-or-treat when it’s dark and a bit later in the evening.”

Friend: “Actually, the kids in my building start at 5:30pm and will likely be done just after 6:00.”

Huh? I didn’t understand. When I was a kid the neighborhood custom of trick-or-treating occurred on the night of Halloween regardless of weekday versus weekend, the amount of homework, piano lessons or t-ball, or the hour my parents returned home from work (to say nothing of the fact that trick-or-treating was not to interfere with Hebrew High during my teen years). I soon saw that this hybrid Halloween was not restricted to my friend’s apartment building. As I walked around my neighborhood on Saturday morning, October 27th I saw clusters of kids and parents in Halloween garb pursuing a festive day. I felt like I was in an alternate universe. What became of the time-bound tradition to celebrate Halloween on October 31st? What prevents families from carving out a bit of time for costume, candy, and gore on a Wednesday night?

As soon as it formed, the question rang familiar. We are living in a day when research and anecdotal evidence points to a declining number of individuals and families who are engaging in a rich tradition of Jewish customs and ritual practice. The 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York revealed that fewer Jews in the New York area are engaged in Jewish life on some important measures. For example, the percent who feel that being connected to a Jewish community is very important dropped from 52% in 2002 to 44% in 2011, and the percent of households who never participate in a Passover seder or the ritual of lighting Channukah candles rose by about 6%.

Concurrent to declining trends in engagement is an increase in the diversity of the Jewish population. The number of individuals and families exhibiting “non-traditional” attributes is growing rapidly to include higher rates of intermarriage, biracial families, single parent households, LGBT sexual orientation, and diagnoses of a variety of special developmental needs. These trends, coupled with the societal realities of economic hardship, overcommitted schedules, a culture of consumerism, and increased time spent online, have ignited waves that often crash against traditional frameworks of Jewish living and learning. We’ve evolved as individuals and families at a rate that exceeds the evolution of American Jewish life.

In an article on new approaches to Jewish leadership development, Dr. Erica Brown questions the extent to which text, ritual, and Israel – three pillars of the Jewish religion – can effectively inspire Jewish engagement. The days are numbered, as backed by evidence, when most Jews will light Channukah candles because “it’s tradition” or support Israel because it’s our homeland. Brown calls for an approach to Jewish identity development that is rooted in a more fluid sense of community and commitment.

As I think about my 2012 encounter with the celebration of Halloween I should clarify that while my emotional reaction may have first surfaced as critical, it quickly turned to intrigue. I have spent many years working directly with children and parents, but I do not yet have children of my own. I cannot fully appreciate the stress involved with returning from work on a weekday to the challenge of getting a house full of kids in costume to run around in search of candy (although many summers as a camp counselor getting kids in costume to run around in search of candy comes pretty darn close). Placing myself in these shoes, I can empathize with the attraction of rescheduling the ritual to a calm Saturday family outing. Even further – I see how weekend trick-or-treating could be greater quality time over the weekday distractions of homework, late nights at the office, or out of town work. …and this is just it! Both the Jewish and secular worlds are struggling to align themselves around shifting sociological trends and time honored traditions.

If Halloween on Wednesday, October 31st presents obstacles to celebration, than we shouldn’t be the least surprised that the very nature of our mitzvot yields even more challenges. Many commandments are time bound (without a candy prize) – pray three times of day, wear fringed garments, listen to the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and so on. Others aren’t bound by time, but still arouse a feeling of restriction or irrelevance in a world that is so porous and consumer driven. I struggle too. There are times when I don’t want to go to shul when I could be enjoying a yoga class downtown, or feel bored during a text study and would rather catch up on the shows waiting for me at home on my DVR.

Jews of various denominations have been negotiating the pulls of commandedness and the right to choose for years now. Am I overreaching with this trick-or-treating example? After all, one could argue that Jews defer to weekend convenience each year during Purim when we host carnivals on the Sunday before the holiday over the 14th of Adar. While we certainly extend the party of Purim to the weekend closest to the holiday, most communities still preserve the mitzvah of reading the megillah to the true date. I wouldn’t think twice about Saturday night Halloween costume parties, but the ritual of trick-or-treating seems fitting for the true holiday. Score one for the Jews. …and, yet, how many of us show up to hear the megillah compared to attendance at the Sunday carnival (or no participation at all)?

Jewish education leaders have some tough decisions to make, and I am struggling. As a classically trained educator and typically a linear thinker, I approach education by first identifying what I want students to learn/experience and then figuring out how to present the material. It’s typically during this second step when I give thought to the needs of my learners. In the past, that has meant figuring out how to integrate a variety of modalities (reading, writing, discussion, art, music, movement) to engage a range of learning styles amongst those in attendance. Jewish education has evolved greatly in this way as we now offer many learning experiences that are exciting, fun, and educational. Yet, many folks still aren’t showing up. The current challenge at hand pushes us to dig deeper and understand the personal life context of our learners. This is particularly challenging because we need to do so before we commit fully to what and how we teach. Otherwise, do we actually achieve our objectives if the students don’t show up to class?

This is a slippery slope and too often feels like pressure to just “teach them what they want to know and steer clear of values and practices that aren’t sticking, such as prayer or study of Tanakh.” While text, ritual, and Israel may be declining as initial points of inspiration they remain treasured jewels of our tradition. As Jewish educators, we fail our students if we allow them to be tricked out of these treats. Instead, we need time, space, and support to dialogue over how we perpetuate a rich history of Jewish living, learning, and celebration.

I am left with variations of the same two questions that arose broadly from my 2012 encounter with Halloween:

  1. What are we teaching through Jewish education and how do we “package” it? Are text, ritual, and Israel still foundations for Jewish education? If so, how are they presented to the learner in a way that optimizes engagement?
  2. Who are we teaching? What attributes and life context must be embraced to draw them into the journey of Jewish education?

Dr. Zachary Lasker is Director of Davidson & Melton Research Education Projects at the William Davidson School of Education for The Jewish Theological Seminary. Previously he served as Camp Director for Camp Ramah in California.