Learning about who we are: Chanukah

This year, the Jewish festival of Chanukah falls at the same time as Christmas. Two different religions, that grew up in similar historical-cultural milieus, with festivals around the Winter equinox both observed on the 25th day of their respective Jewish and Gregorian months. This is a perfect time to reflect on the complex interaction that cultures, religious beliefs and communities have with one another. Anyone with essentialist views of their identity or their ideology and theology should stop and look long and hard in the mirror. We must come to realise that who we are is something that is changing and evolving and, more importantly, the way we view the world is something that can change over time, along with the myths that help us appreciate how our world view and our sense of self are interlinked. Chanukah is a perfect example of that.

In the 2nd Century BC (or as I like to think, BCE – Before the Common Era), a group from Modi’in rose up against the Seleucid Empire to reclaim their sovereignty and rededicate their Temple that had been desecrated with idols. What is sometimes overlooked is that this act of military triumph certainly included a suppression of co-religionists who were Hellenised. The narrative as we have inherited it as Jews is clear – this was a triumph of religious freedom and religious identification, it took the form of military victory over an Empire and less successfully, the exclusion of Hellenism as a normative influence.

Then centuries later, the Talmud, the work of literature that is, more than any other, defining of Judaism post-destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in 70 AD, records a different miracle. The miracle of military triumph is downplayed and a new narrative enters the field – a story of a cruse of oil lasting for 8 days. This Festival of Lights as Josephus, the Jewish Historian to Rome, describes Chanukah, thus becomes a reflection of two narratives: on the one hand, the military victory over the Greeks and the influence of Hellenisation and, on the other hand, the miracle of making a small jug of oil last for 8 days.

We do not know why the Talmud downplays the military victory, though scholars have tried to figure it out. Some suggest that in a time when rebellions against Rome had finally been crushed the celebration of a similar, earlier rebellion, would do much to antagonise the Empire. Others see in the shift to God’s wondrous acts as a turn inwards to a spiritual ideal. No longer does the physicality of war carry the same meaning, rather an inward looking spiritual victory makes much more sense.

Chanukah carries twin narratives, which have been popularised by many historical forces. But when asked as a Rabbi if either of them is true my response is, “what do you mean by true?”. The narratives that sustain the identity that we have as Jews is derived from both stories and the way they weave their importance at different times through Jewish history is self-evident. Are they historically true? – Well to a certain extent that does not really interest me since there is a historical core to the stories but the stories we tell ourselves are much more powerful than truth. Every advertising executive, political activist and charismatic religious leader will tell you the same.

But I say something else too. We cannot risk just telling the stories and appreciating their miracles. To be aware of the history of ideas, to be open to how this history influences how we view the world today, and to be open to change and complexity, these are also important principles. Only a literalist would expect Jews to abandon their sense of meaning of Chanukah because there is a historical process in its evolution, aspects of which may be ignored, downplayed or integrated in creative ways. Equally, only someone with a childish sense of essential truth would ignore the way that understanding the forces that create our religious beliefs and narratives can enhance our celebrations.

Today, most Jews are deeply aware of the way that their Judaism is interacting, growing and changing in a sometimes delicate harmonious way with the wider world. But sometimes it is a non-stop highly charged contest in which ideas vie for attention. That is the same when any cultural memes and values interact, no matter their context or religious framework. Through these moments of creativity the spirit is renewed in each generation. It seems to me that if we all viewed our culture, religious beliefs and identities in this non-essentialist, permeable, mutually influencing way, we might be more open, more tolerant and more willing to grow together.

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.