I recently taught an undergraduate course entitled “Early and Medieval Judaism.” While there were several main themes to the course, one of the central distinctions I tried to get the students to see was that over Judaism’s long history, there have been two broad types of Judaic communities: “natural” and “intentional.”
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
The AVI CHAI Foundation has promoted the notion that day schools are primary incubators of “religious purposefulness,” developing the capacity to live deep, authentic Jewish lives through regular contact with the sources of Jewish tradition, be they textual, ritual, communal. Authors here probe the ramifications of this notion for our understanding of the mission of day schools and their role in Jewish communal life.
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Jewish day schools are replacing synagogues as the primary source of Jewish connection and meaning for increasing numbers of adults. Day school parents still maintain synagogue memberships at a rate more than double the national average—according to the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, 95% compared with 46% of all Jewish adults—but recent qualitative research reveals that many of those parents connect with Judaism most purposefully at their children’s school, not at shul. This phenomenon constitutes a challenge and an opportunity for day school leaders.
It is a rare occurrence to encounter G-d as topic in a general conversation. If someone does start talking about Him, people often initially react with embarrassment or unease, or a mixture of both. G-d means different things to different people. For some He is the Creator of the world, for others a Higher Power. Some regard Him as indifferent to human affairs whereas other see Him as a personal G-d who intervenes in the course of history. And again others, although believing in G-d, have not given His exact nature much thought. These views are very personal, and most people find it difficult to speak about G-d openly.
This was the third time she had been kicked out of minyan. She was told that she could not return unless she received my permission. Defiant, and angry, she confronted me. “Why do they make me pray in this school? What’s the point? I don’t believe in any of this!” From her perspective, this was the first time I had ever heard these challenges. Her mixture of anger and arrogance bordered on disrespect, so I first responded, “If you want something from me, do you think the tone you’re using is the way to get it, or do you want to start over?” She apologized, and then asked the same question in a softer voice.
This column features books, articles, and websites recommended by our authors and people from the RAVSAK network, pertaining to the theme of the current issue of HaYidion, for readers who want to investigate the topic in greater depth.
All of us are actively engaged in the beginning our new school year, and I hope you are reaping the rewards of your successful programs and activities. This is also a very dynamic time at RAVSAK. I am pleased to share with you some of the exciting developments taking place.
I have always enjoyed the academic calendar, because it has a defined beginning and ending. I have always wondered how one could do a job that never finishes, but continues for fifty weeks or so, is interrupted by a couple of weeks of vacation, and then resumes an endless flow.
Born and raised as a Chabad woman, I knew that I would live in a city where I would work to bring Judaism to Jewish people who wished to learn about their heritage. I never dreamed that I would be head of school at a community day school, governed by a community-represented board. I did not move to Charlotte, North Carolina, for a career in education. I came with my husband to open a religious educational center for Jews of all ages in the Carolinas. I was never concerned about being able to meet the needs of a diverse group of students with varied practices and beliefs, but I was totally unprepared to operate in a politically driven atmosphere.
In each issue of HaYidion, the editors interview someone with particular expertise or experience in a topic related to the issue’s theme.
Pluralistic Jewish education is both a new model of building Jewish community and a philosophical approach to educating Jews. In the face of deep religious, social and political divisions (including interdenominational ignorance and stereotyping) within Klal Yisrael, an intentionally pluralistic Jewish community does not reject different approaches to Jewish practice, beliefs, or denominational affiliation. Nor does it merely tolerate these differences; rather, it views these differences as strengths and learning opportunities.
While I wholeheartedly support Michael Berger’s notion of a day school in which religious purposefulness is paramount, I question the extent to which we can conceive of a day school as an “intentional” community, made up of “like-minded people who self-consciously choose to live a life that they view as superior to others.” In contrast to previous intentional communities in Jewish history (sectarians, Kabbalists, labor Zionists, etc.), the day school population is comprised of children who are not making self-conscious decisions to join a community. With few exceptions, they are simply attending school at the behest of their parents.
Berger has made a powerful argument for day schools as settings for “intentional Jewish communities,” places “that help cultivate purposeful Jewish adults.” In many ways, of course, this position reflects our very best dreams for the potential of the day school. Berger’s view of a school energized by an articulated and embodied vision defines the core of a successful school. I applaud his passionate advocacy of that concept; it recalls the late Seymour Fox’s famous dictum that the greatest problem in contemporary Jewish education is its “blandness.” A school with a vision is a school that rejects blandness in favor of inspiration and a sense of direction. I agree wholeheartedly with his articulation of the power and importance of vision in Jewish education.
Berger suggests a heavy mission for Jewish communal day schools, the vast majority of which serve children in grades K-8, when he advocates that the creation of intentional Jewish communities will result in students who can become the core leaders of the next generation. Berger further posits that creating natural Jewish communities will only result in nostalgia and will be unable to withstand the trumpet call of American individualism.
Berger’s insightful piece draws upon a particularly interesting model utilized by scholars of Jewish history: the natural vs. intentional community. In applying this idea to the contemporary communal context, Berger gives voice to a nostalgic tendency in Jewish life, one that looks fondly back upon the communities of the past (the rebbes of Europe and their followers, for example) as somehow better and more solidly constructed than those we experience today. At the same time, his writing is hopeful: he indicates that we can still establish a “vibrant yet stable core,” despite the many challenges that face our community—and that Jewish day schools are critical to this essential goal.
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