Who Is an “Educated Jew”?

by Dr. Gil Graff

One of the pre-eminent scholar-practitioners in Jewish education from mid-twentieth century to the early twenty-first was the late Seymour Fox. Before moving to Israel, the Chicago-born Fox was among those who shaped the Ramah camping movement. In Jerusalem, he headed the Melton Center for Jewish Education at Hebrew University and later guided the work of the Mandel Foundation in its Jewish educational initiatives. For more than a decade, Fox worked with a team of colleagues on a project that he termed the “educated Jew.”

Fox recognized that – depending on a person’s understanding of Judaism or Jewishness – the picture of an “educated Jew” would look quite different. He undertook to identify what Jewish education might look like depending on whose perspective it reflected. Toward that end, he set forth multiple visions of Jewish education represented by several prominent thinkers of the late twentieth century and spanning Conservative, Orthodox, Reform and secular Zionist ideologies. This work led to a book, Visions of Jewish Education (2003). Readers are introduced to a variety of perspectives on Jewish life, each of which informs choices in curriculum and instruction.

The “sea” of Jewish learning is wide and deep; no one – however highly motivated – will master the full richness of Jewish knowledge, wisdom and experience. If there is a common theme among the thinkers whose “take” on essential Jewish learning Fox and his colleagues undertook to capture, it is that the “educated Jew” constantly strives to grow in his/her understanding and application of Jewish teaching to the circumstances of life. The “educated Jew” is a critical thinker, though recognizing that Jewish knowledge and experience is far more vast than he/she will ever master.

What should be the “take away” of Jewish education? One notable interviewee in Fox’s project, Moshe Greenberg (a Bible scholar long on the faculty of Hebrew University), put it this way: “A Jewish education worthy of the name will address the hunger of the learner to know ‘whence he came and whither he is going.’ It will furnish him with value-concepts by which to infuse raw experience with meaning and order. The success of a Jewish education is measured by its adequacy in accompanying the learner through life as a treasury of concepts lending meaning to private and public experience” (Visions, 123).

More than two decades ago, Fox staffed the Mandel Commission on Jewish Education in North America, a Commission that published a report titled “A Time to Act.” Much action promoting Jewish educational engagement has ensued: from Birthright to the Foundation for Jewish Camp, from important initiatives in strengthening day school sustainability and affordability to re- imagining complementary Jewish education, from PJ Library to Concierges for Jewish education, and more. Each of these efforts – many of them enabled by visionary philanthropists and foundations – has contributed to the Jewish education of thousands of participants.

Though the “educated Jew” remains difficult to define, of two things a person of this description is certain: there is more to learn and, what has yet to be studied or experienced is significant and worthy of life-long exploration. As Harvard Professor Isadore Twersky advised the Mandel Commission: “Our goal should be to make it possible for every Jewish person, child or adult, to be exposed to the mystery and romance of Jewish history, to the enthralling insights and special sensitivity of Jewish thought, to the sanctity and symbolism of Jewish existence, and to the power and profundity of Jewish faith.” And, I would add, to engage students in experiences that lead them to conclude (to paraphrase Hillel): Let us go out and learn more!

One point of view … let’s hear yours.

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.