Jewish Fluency: Creating a New Culture

Abi Dauber Sterne

What’s the difference between the following two sets of questions?

Who was the first Prime Minister of Israel?

What is the first of the Ten Commandments?


Why has Israel always been important to the Jewish people?

I don’t believe in God. Can I still be Jewish?


If these were questions on an exam, each pair would be testing for a very different kind of knowledge. The first pair are questions whose answers could be easily “googled.” The second two require some “google-able” knowledge, but they also require analytical skills, the ability to synthesize nuanced information, and ultimately the ability to organize the answer into a fluid well-constructed response.


This difference is what I call literacy vs. fluency. At Hillel International we have developed a “Jewish Fluency Assessment,” and we use it help us set a bar for the kind of knowledge and abilities we increasingly expect Hillel staff to have. The creation of this assessment was spurred by a new project supported by the Maimonides Fund, called the Ezra Fellowship ( The assessment was developed by researching Jewish literacy tests and courses that are used at other institutions (the Jewish Agency For Israel’s test for shlichim, Bar Ilan University’s undergraduate requirements, synagogue Judaism 101 courses, etc.), and by having discussions and focus groups with Hillel professionals about the specific knowledge that is needed to respond to the issues that arise most often for Jewish students on college campuses.


We called this a “fluency” assessment, rather than “literacy” assessment, because, as demonstrated in the questions above, fluency is an indicator of literacy, but literacy is not an indicator of fluency. Literacy indicates a person’s knowledge of a certain subject matter, whereas fluency is about the ease with which one can explain ideas in a clear and compelling way. Our work as educators, particularly in the work of informal education, hinges on our ability to fluently and fluidly explain Jewish ideas, enrich an impromptu conversation, or infuse a group experience with Jewish framings. While Jewish literacy is certainly a part of this, knowing the names and dates of Jewish historical events and figures, or citing chapter and verse from the Torah, do not ensure a rich educational experience for a student.


Over 100 people have taken the assessment to date, and we’ve begun to analyze the data to uncover which Jewish experiences and what kind of education correlate with a high score on the assessment. Individuals who had been on an immersive Jewish experience tended to score higher than those who had not. In addition, those who had been to Israel (beyond a Birthright experience) scored higher than those who did not go to Israel. And, finally, those who had both camp and Hebrew or day school tended to score higher as well.


While, at first blush, these results are unsurprising, there are a number of salient findings. Our assessment, as it does not test for comprehensive Jewish literacy, does seem to indicate that immersive Jewish experiences (such as retreats, youth group shabbatons, Limmud) correlate with a general fluency. That is, people who’ve lived—even if for short bursts of time—in a “surround-sound” Jewish environment are more likely to be articulate about questions relating to Jewish life. Equally interesting is that Jewish camp was highly correlated with success on this assessment, in combination with either Hebrew or day school. In other words, for this assessment, neither Hebrew or day school were the key alone, but rather a camp experience was what correlated with exceptional answers to the questions on the assessment. Again, this is likely pointing to the difference between the “textbook” knowledge that is taught in schools, and the “lived” knowledge that is gained in a camp experience.


Certainly, there are confounding variables between the correlations. For example, individuals who participated in all the above activities are more likely to have come from Jewishly engaged families. Nonetheless, imagine if we could use these findings to give preference to hiring individuals with these experiences in their background, or alternatively, if we could provide these experiences to all Jewish communal professionals and students.


The impact that this Jewish Fluency Assessment has begun to have at Hillel is also notable. First, the very fact that we have an assessment is a signal to our staff that we value Jewish knowledge and experience. It is beginning to create a culture—even in our informal educational setting—where Jewish knowledge and the ability to share this knowledge is prized. This has the potential to help us attract professionals who either have this knowledge or are deeply interested in acquiring it. In turn, this will mean that Hillel will become (if it hasn’t already) a magnet for Jewish seekers, learners and teachers.


Secondly, this assessment has given us some benchmarks for our work, as well as guidance for what’s next on our professional development agenda. Increasingly, as we are finding that Jewish fluency is critical to our work, we are also getting clearer on what that fluency looks like and how to help people acquire it.


Of course, it leaves us with a lot of questions for research as well. How do we teach towards fluency, in addition to literacy? What are the pedagogies for teaching students to go beyond the facts? How do we help people take what they know, and craft this knowledge into compelling narratives and existential ideas?


We are also exploring whether fluency can be acquired later in life. In addition to formative childhood and young adult educational experiences, can a 30- or 40-year old acquire this fluency, and if so, in what settings? What are the prerequisites for acquiring Jewish fluency, and what is the curriculum?


The curriculum question will likely be the most difficult to answer. What are the content areas that a pluralistic informal educational organization like Hillel can expect all professionals to know? How do we ensure that the material taught generates discussions of issues of existential meaning? What big ideas should be included, and what philosophical and other frameworks are helpful in training educators to go beyond numbers and facts? How do we keep the material relevant to the reality of what college students are interested in talking about? Of course, we do have a good sense of the modalities in which this curriculum ought to be taught. Drawing from Jonathan Woocher’s article “Reinventing Jewish Education for the 21st Century,” we know that any material we develop (and have already begun to develop) will be “learner-centered, relationship-infused, and life-relevant.”


Finally, as I think about the notion of fluency, I draw from the work of Michael Rosenak. Rosenak’s vision of the cultured and educated Jew was one who could use Jewish language to create new Jewish literature. For Rosenak the language is the Torah, and literature is the classic commentaries on the Torah. In Rosenak’s words, “’Literature’ I understand to refer to what people (can) do within the specific language into which they have been initiated, thereby demonstrating the language’s vitality and its ability to provide a cultural home for different people, in diverse times and circumstances.”


In other words, the goal of being fluent in a language is to both perpetuate and create new literature and new culture. For Hillel, the goal of having professionals who have Jewish fluency is no less.

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HaYidion Jewish Literacy and Curriculum Spring 2016
Jewish Literacy and Curriculum
Spring 2016