Jewish Education – A Progressive Challenge

Some educational musings:

I sense that most of our members in progressive synagogues understand now, perhaps like never before, that they are autonomous sovereign selves who can claim to create their own authentic Judaism – for themselves. They now know this can be as idiosyncratic as they wish and they know that all the old figures of authority have effectively vanished – save when it comes to life-cycle moments and status questions when Rabbis can still cling to a modicum of power.

Progressive Jews may struggle regularly about what it means to be free to choose and what it means for tradition – but on the whole, if push came to shove, I think most would prefer their freedom to determine what is right for them and not an authority beyond themselves. That is, to some extent, a victory for the enlightenment ideals of autonomy and humanism.

Whereas there would have been a time when the authority for what ‘is’ Judaism lay with some external force – rabbi, community, beit din, text. In those days, even if you did not follow what the authority said you ‘should’ do, there was at least an implicit understanding that there was a ‘should’ and there was someone or something defining Judaism other than you.

But those days have long passed for progressive Jews (and those who don’t like the passage of time have reverted to moderate or more severe models of external sources of authority). So the questions I’m mulling over now are: how has our model of education in our communities shifted to keep pace with the partial triumph of the enlightenment? In a world where it seems the violent forces of scriptural literalism or fundamentalism appear attractive, how do we educate our members who are committed to retaining a sense of autonomy, of universalism, of humanity. How do we articulate the significance of learning about their particular heritage, a heritage that speaks in the language of responsibility, authority in text/interpreter/Divine revelator, of particularism and purpose for one’s own people?

It’s a question for day schools and religion schools, adult education, youth work and early years and family education. Are there implicit (or explicit) assumptions at work in our educational philosophy that actually no longer make sense? If ‘we’ no longer define ‘it’ but rather work with a rich tapestry (or perhaps too thin soup) of cultural memes and religious ideas then what is it that we are educating about, why and how? If the destabilisation of authority means that even whilst I might see myself (as Rabbi) as a conveyor of values, texts, history, memory, heritage, experts are not the most important voice for doing this, then what happens to our educational philosophy and practice? Are we tempted to use tools of persuasion, rhetoric, and even communal sanction rather than a higher notion of education?

(NOTE: I can’t quite articulate this question. It’s something to do with the strategy by which we find methods to bring children and families in contact with Jewish learning in ways that are either coercive or unavoidable. The success of Jewish day schools is a case in point – we now have perhaps 50% of our children attending them, but are we prioritising Jewish education or academic results and Jewish friendships? Or why do we insist on minimum periods of learning to become Bar/Bat Mitzvah?)

Let me put it another way: one of the repeated issues I come up against in the pluralist Jewish day school worlds is the way in which a previously accepted norm collides with a contemporary revisioning amongst autonomous adults. This, to some extent, is characterised by the Old Model:

“I don’t do x, y, z (which are usually about kashrut or shabbat observance) but I know there are some ‘shoulds’ that I choose not to do.” In other words, the canon of Jewish practice dictates that certain things are ‘supposed’ to be done a certain way – this canon is external to me, it is defined by rabbis or texts or a revelation of God, but nonetheless, it is not something over which I have power. However, I choose to ignore what I’m ‘supposed’ to do because I’m free to do that. But at least there are standards and rules which we should be following.

The New Model reads something like this:

Judaism is authored by me, albeit occasionally dictated to me by family/community. But ultimately, there is no such thing as authentic Judaism save the expression of Judaism which I find meaningful. As such, when I eat prawns for shabbat lunch having attended synagogue in the morning, there is nothing contradictory in that choice. I choose what is Judaism for me. I’m no longer choosing not to do something or to do something that is defined as what I am ‘supposed’ to be doing, but rather Judaism and my choices are fully integrated. Even if that is idiosyncratic and without ideological purity.

Somewhere between the hegemony of the former and egocentric ‘Me-ness’ of the latter, there is a dialogue which we’re not having. And we’re not having it because we have failed to understand/accept that the self-authorship can be an authentic process when situated within a thick conversation about Jewish life and culture. Jewish life is never solely about ‘me’ and almost always includes a ‘we’. But framing that conversation now needs to be significantly more nuanced and our educators need far greater finesse than ever before. It is not good enough that children come home saying ‘This is kashrut’ or ‘this is Shabbat observance’ – they’re meaningless statements. Meaningless for those who couldn’t care less and meaningless for those who care so much they have constructed their own authentic expression of kashrut or shabbat observance.

Ultimately, how do we demonstrate that there is something deeper, more engaging, more fulfilling and more compelling, whilst understanding of the world in which we now find ourselves? How do we thicken our cultural conversations?

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NB if synagogues haven’t figured out how to come to terms with what this means, I think the shift in the rabbinic authority is also something for which we are unprepared. Non rabbis can be as educated (sometimes more) than rabbis and non-rabbis are more and more frequently invited to lead rituals and services like funerals and weddings – a clear influence of humanism and the realignment of authority.

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Jewish studies, Jewish education, Jewish homes

I have a piece in the JC tomorrow, which is an edited down version of something I wrote after Simon Rocker’s blog about the shortage of places in Jewish schools. I was frustrated that the debate seemed to miss the point of having Jewish schools. Since I wrote it, I’ve reworked parts though the gist remains the same. Here’s an extended version of it:


I want to change the conversation we seem to be having about education in the Jewish community here in the UK. It comes on the back of growing up in a youth movement, many years in the congregational rabbinate and more recent experience in the Jewish Day school world. Along with an academic interest in education and Jewish education.

You might think it clichéd, but the conversation begins at home not day school, cheder or youth movement. It begins with us as adults (young and older). It starts with our expectations of Jewish life and the learning and conversations we have that make it meaningful. It ends with a realisation that unless we’re talking about these big questions at home, no amount of programming is going to work in enabling our young people to be engaged by them. And, as a side issue, it also means we stop talking about a ‘Jewish studies curriculum’ and start talking about ‘Learning to live Jewish lives’.

In the UK, some years ago, a massive investment began creating new Jewish state schools, to offer more capacity in the system – especially families who were unable or unwilling to send their children to particularly orthodox closed schools. Faith schools in the UK can be, what is known as, voluntary aided – which means the state provides funds for all the usual school provision and parents make a voluntary contribution towards such things as the ‘faith’ component, like ‘Limmudei Kodesh’ or ‘Jewish Studies’ and the festival celebrations. Hebrew is frequently taught as a modern foreign language and providing the school can be filled by Jewish children, all the children may be Jewish. Of course, the corollary to this is that the state can hold the schools to account just as the non-faith school sector, with inspection and curriculum requirements being in line with the rest of the state school system.

Recently it has become clear from reports in the Jewish Chronicle that on the one hand parents are choosing a Jewish school because of the Jewish ethos it offers to their child. However, more challenging, a few weeks ago the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jonathan Arkush, seemed to suggest that because of academic achievement and other problems in the non-faith schools – that they are rife with “bullying, violence, drug-taking, racism” – parents were choosing a Jewish day school as an option. Neglecting of course the achievements of students in regular state schools and that Jewish students can be racist, bullies and may take drugs in equal amounts to non-Jewish children.

That debate is important. In fact, it is part of a wider discussion that we need to have about schooling in the UK. However it’s not essential to our Jewish educational provision and in fact diverts from the conversation I want to have. In short it is a distraction.

I want to talk about the impact of our Jewish education structures on Jewish life. A free alternative to private schooling is fine, but the point of Jewish day schools was sold to us in the community as a means to save our children from leaving Judaism and to make sure those same children know and connect with something about their heritage.

The way I want us to talk about our Jewish educational world is to start by recognising that the structures we have put in place are dysfunctional and generally insufficiently embedded in the home and total community experience. They worked for previous generations, old models of family, community and society. But they no longer work. They make no demands of us across generations and offer no space for us to think together about the important questions of how and why to be Jewish in the 21st century.

Some of the structures, like Jewish schools, are making us insular in ways we never could have predicted. Other parts of the infrastructure, like supplementary schools in the UK, are inadequate but receive an inordinate amount of resources without demands for success. Yet other parts of our education infrastructure, the youth movements, which used to be the jewel in the crown of the Jewish community, are, from what I have heard, slowly disappearing as radical counter cultural projects.

Let me start with the youth movements. They do, in theory, offer a Jewish youth counter cultural life. And their point is to be disconnected from the home in that rebellious and creative way – about all sorts of things, identity, education, community politics, Zionism. They force us as all to think differently. But let’s face it, summer camp and Israel tour is now so massively expensive that I could never afford both. And youth movements seem to be struggling to be counter cultural in the face of new pressures of the 21st century – with one or two exceptions, the only youth movements that seem to be thriving numerically are those with a parent movement. Add to that the tragedy that we don’t send young people on a year programme to Israel in sufficient numbers. Insufficient young people develop the skills and language of Jewish leadership and community living in a year-long intensive programme in Israel. I am a passionate supporter of the youth movement – they frequently nurture the missing values and feelings and create the relationships absent from other places. And it’s the world I came from. They must succeed.

So we move to our supplementary schools, cheder. Unlike youth movements, in the last 20-30 years they have never been properly held to account. I know you’re going to jump to their defence. These days they might be fun and offer chances to make friends, even train our children to perform at Bat and Bar Mitzvah. But let’s face it, if that’s what we want there’s surely a better way of using the massive financial investment than sitting our children in synagogues for 30 weeks a year for a couple of hours or trying to teach them a modern and ancient foreign language in less than 45 minutes a week. Supplementary schools in the UK have never worked out how to build links back to the home, because the structure and system is effectively unchanged since the model almost made sense decades ago. We’re now in the 21st century and yet the model is practically identical to what it has always been.

Finally, Jewish schools threaten to undermine meaningful productive Jewish educational programming. Let’s get out of the way that there may be some of issues I mentioned earlier and let’s also recognise that they do seem to be an aspirational choice for those who cannot afford private school education.

The real concern is that our Jewish day schools seem to be under performing at Jewish identity development – the JPR research is one indicator of that. Having read a recent inspection of a school by Pikuach – an inspection service of the Jewish community for our faith schools – I got no sense of the long term impact of learning ‘about’ Judaism – however good the standard of teaching. From what I can tell the Jewish studies curriculum now means that we are using the Jewish day school experience for the same reason that cheder was historically used – delegating responsibility for Jewish experiences and inoculating children in the same way that we were ‘inoculated’ for our lives. The system fails to sufficiently recognise the reality that the school will have little impact individually, whilst it does not tap into the bridge building necessary to the home and synagogue. And when we no longer learn ‘about’ in Jewish Studies but use the language of experience and relationships, we might have a better chance of success.

The home is the key to Jewish identity and life-long engagement and Jewish learning. Unless we invest in the home, we are basically playing roulette with the chance of success of our other provisions.

What I fear is that parents are now even less engaged by the system. If you’re already Jewishly involved (whatever that means for you), you are probably thrilled by the day school experience and the opportunities it offers to live in the rhythms of the Jewish year, to have your Shabbat reinforced by the school week, learn Hebrew, sing Jewish songs and recite the prayers. I certainly am. But if not then the day school message from the Jewish community is that ‘we’ll do it for you’ forgetting that they can’t. Judaism in this paradigm occurs in a vacuum.

The wonderful teachers in our schools and I’m thinking of those teaching my children who are truly excellent, have no chance because the system is constructed to fail. The system is not the integrated community life we need.

So what conversation do we need to be having? If we really want to succeed in transmitting a meaningful Judaism to the next generation it has to start at home – not just homes with 2.4 children, but every Jewish home, with and without children, and every type of family. Our synagogues and schools have to be given the opportunity to think about what that means, whilst our youth movements should be pushing back in gentle (and not so gentle) acts of rebellion. Everything has to build bridges to the home and the worlds must be interconnected. Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding themselves. Day school is not enough. Supplementary school has never been enough. We need to put in place new systems and new spaces to think, talk and live creatively.

That’s why the institute for adult Jewish education that I’m setting up, The Lyons Institute, will be an opportunity to challenge us to think as adults (and not only for parents). We will deepen our adult conversations, not just with those already engaged but with all of us. We will think about Judaism, what it means to learn, how to express in our homes a Judaism that is meaningful. What I seek to support us all in doing is thinking, critiquing and sharing conversations about Jewish life for the future. We will be launching in Autumn 2015 and it is an exciting prospect for central London to be at the heart of a new way of learning, building relationships, sharing conversations and asking, if not answering, the big questions as Jews today.