Shabbat Lech Lecha – A personal tribute to Rabbi Sheila Shulman z’tzl (a sermon)

(This will be my sermon tomorrow morning).

Those of you who pay attention to my sermons – does anyone pay attention to my sermons? Will have followed in my Rosh Hashanah sermon this year that a new review of educational programming in the Jewish community was released by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. The specific focus of the academic research was an assessment of the impact of Jewish educational initiatives on students at university. The outcome, surveying a sampled cross section of the Jewish student body, weighing up Religion School, Israel Tour, Youth movement, Summer camp, GAP year and Yeshiva experience is, in simple terms, equivalent to a C -. That is – must try harder. Only a GAP year and Yeshiva have really sizeable impacts, with the others lagging far behind – particularly Religion School and Israel Tour. Counter-intuitive as it is and queried by others, the statistics bear out a harsh reality that we are failing miserably to achieve anything substantial in our educational programmes as a Jewish community.

The single biggest influence, not surprisingly, was the home. The simple litmus test (and bear in mind that the authors are sophisticated in their understanding of the Jewish community, so accusations of anti-Liberal bias are not really appropriate) – the simple litmus test for the home was – kosher meat and lighting Shabbat candles at home. These two things are convenient short hand to indicate the impact of the home on young adult life. If you do them (of course implying you probably do a whole load of other things too) then the chances are your children when young adults will also describe in a number of positive ‘active’ ways their Jewish identity too.

So there you have it. A ‘C minus’ for the Jewish community. Must try harder, yet congratulate it for evaluating the results properly and having an impact at all. But when you invest say 8-10% of your budget in your Jewish education programming you might want to demand a higher degree of measurable, and not anecdotal, impact. And this is coming from someone who wrote his undergraduate dissertation about the Social Educational experience of Israel Tour (already noting that the Jewish education component was all but irrelevant!).

Of course, the apologists and critics have fought back. But even if we finesse our understanding of what and how we measure, these crude statistics are not to be ignored. And the survey results were also submitted to a peer review journal for added validity.

And of course, every community thinks it is an exception – the Orthodox outreach groups couldn’t see their data, the Liberal Jews couldn’t see Kabbalat Torah and the youth movements couldn’t understand why Israel Tour has a negative impact. Then the more long in the tooth critics wondered where the longitudinal study could be found – following up the students decades later to measure impact again. We all wanted to wish we were different and not the norm. But more honest debate would be to ask whether we subject ourselves to this scrutiny and if not, why not. Practitioners seem disposed to ignore the researchers and theoreticians and so we have a disconnect and the world keeps turning or rather churning the same old stuff in a different package.

I find myself stuck in between the two – I’m a practitioner, but I want some evidence that what I’m doing is actually going to achieve its aims. There are plenty of trees to bark up, I’d rather it wasn’t the wrong one. And I’m also a believer in education being transformative. In my first degree in Education, I had a lecturer who returned time and again to the question of what we’re doing when we educate – when engaged in learning. And I kept being drawn back to a model of education as transformative – that in the experience we are changed, be it cognitively, affectively, or in psychomotor skills (to use a common taxonomy of learning). Something happens that is sometimes short lived but hopefully enduring about the way we think, feel or do things in the world.

And this takes me back to my formative Jewish learning experiences, which occurred in educational contexts, but which could not be quantified in the research by JPR. I wrote to Dr Jonathan Boyd, the Executive Director of JPR and asked him whether there was any mechanism by which we could measure the impact of educators – of the relationship formed between chanich and mechanech (learner and ‘instructor’), talmid and melamed. Not surprisingly, it is hard. Very hard. How we measure impact of relationships is so difficult we would be left, really, with qualitative and not quantitative data. And therefore information which, whilst potentially useful, does not make for very easy data material to put into a research paper.

I resolved, on reading the research by JPR, to reflect on some of my teachers, the relationships I formed and the things I learnt from them. Because we need to give credit where it’s due to some of the outstanding individuals in our community – who have brought us to where we are, even if we now must try harder. The ones who are not semi-Gods, or necessarily trumpeted in the JC most influential list, nor founders of movements. Simply those teachers who have had a lasting impact and for the purposes of this sermon, impact on me.

And to begin this journey with you today seems most apt because one of my dear teachers and colleagues died last Shabbat. Rabbi Sheila Shulman, z’tzl was one of those teachers from whom I learnt the simple, yet enduring lesson that it is possible to disagree so fundamentally with someone intellectually and yet demonstrate a deep compassion for their being and their humanity. These are my reflections – not a eulogy of her life but how I was transformed in knowing her and learning from her.

I first really met Sheila when she had been asked to run a session for madrichim in RSY-Netzer. I think her unique style was a bit impenetrable to a young and rather ignorant person like me. But the complexity with which she formulated both her written and spoken sentences became something deeply endearing as I grew to know her.

Later on, I was working as a youth worker for the synagogue where she worked – Finchley Reform Synagogue. I had just submitted my application to the Leo Baeck College and she forewarned me of the difficulties of the college experience and regaled me with the tale of how in interview when asked about her belief in God or relationship with God (I don’t remember) her response was ‘Vexed’. After finding one of her cough sweets, she told me that it was still pretty vexed and I shouldn’t be too worried about my own theological misgivings. She gave me permission to be fallible, to be unsure and accepting of things being complex and not always answerable. The glint in her eye already told the naïve me that she was rebellious herself.

When I started at the Leo Baeck College the attacks of 9/11 occurred in the middle of our Hebrew intensive foundation class before term even started. I had sleepless nights thinking about the launch of that first airstrike with the impending war and initiated with co-students and a few others an evening for reflection about war and how we might respond to it. The group was not large, but Sheila was one of the rabbis that supported us. I have such a strong memory of how she counselled against wanting to spring to action before we had really thought about the significance of what was happening to us and the world. She reminded us that she had been part of plenty of activism in her life, but that we shouldn’t seek to take action before we had actually done some thinking. Her mere presence was affirming – a teacher and rabbi could come and be part of something that a group of upstart students had initiated. And her sagacity was evident.

Whilst at the college I was taught by Sheila three times – a course about Martin Buber, one on Jewish Narrative theology and as a supervisor for a colloquium paper. It was during this time, when I suspect I was feeling rather vexed myself, that she recommended a book to me – ‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursula Le Guin. Little did I know that this book was so important to her, even as I used her favourite quote without realising it in my High Holy Day sermons. I never quite achieved the level of literary knowledge that Sheila really wanted for her students. She demanded thoroughgoing reading of ancient classics, English classics and modern literature – a reflection of her Liberal arts education in the USA I’m sure. It was because of Sheila that I struggled with Auerbach’s Mimesis and was deeply disturbed by another incredible sci-fi novel – The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell which has a character who describes feeling as if sexually assaulted by God. She had that gentle push in her intellectual expectations for me which was neither arrogant nor humiliating. She taught me that the world of literature and the world of philosophy was where I could find meaning, and I didn’t have to drown in fashionable psychobabble.

Sheila was unbelievably tough minded and spoke her mind forcefully on all sorts of issues from theology, Israel, rabbinics, sexuality, feminism and so on. You didn’t have to agree to admire her. Somewhere I have notes from Sheila which were so outspoken on the point of growing rabbis for the future they were hard to read but compelling in their honesty. From Sheila I learnt that it is possible to speak one’s mind forcefully and directly without sacrificing one’s humanity.

Finally, when Sheila saw me one day and agreed to chat outside in the cold as she smoked a cigarette, she said in that way that only she could ‘Yes dear’ and then listened to my plans for my PhD. She remarked that it can take a while to get the rusty cogs working again but they will work. And slightly ruefully she commented on the accretion of her own rusty cogs. You got a real sense from her that she really loved. She never suffered fools lightly, but loved humanity for all its wondrous potential and this was in part through her own understanding of Judaism.

So this Lech Lecha, this Shabbat of transformation for the founding patriarch Abraham, this Shabbat in which we remember the yarzheit of Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck, after whom my rabbinic seminary was named, the Shabbat of transformation at the end of the first mournful week since Rabbi Sheila Shulman died – one of my rabbis, let us pay tribute to our teachers. Let us try again and harder. Because this thing that we do here and at home – this thing called Judaism is something of potential deep and profound beauty, if we aspire to make it so. May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.

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