HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Jewish Learning for What?

by Jonathan Woocher Issue: Size Matters

The letter C appears to have assumed an especially prominent place in discourse about education today. There is, of course, the Common Core, the latest attempt to define and implement a set of national standards for what students should know and, even more importantly, be able to do with that knowledge, with a strong emphasis on so-called higher order thinking skills. And, there are, in various configurations, the four (or five, or six, or seven) Cs that name critical “21st century learning” skills, items such as creativity, collaboration, curiosity, communication, critical thinking, cross-cultural understanding, and others that have been suggested, seen as vital for students to be able to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

Leaving aside the mnemonic value of encapsulating important concepts in this way, what the Common Core and 21st century learning skills have in common is recognition that old definitions of what counts as good education are no longer sufficient. It’s not that traditional goals like “literacy” and “numeracy” are to be set aside, but rather that they need to be redefined, with a particular emphasis on how students are able to become self-directed lifelong learners and on how they can use the knowledge they acquire to achieve larger goals, an economically viable career and a fulfilling life.

This is a time, I would suggest, when American Jewish education is beginning to undertake a similar rethinking of how it frames its goals to meet the needs and aspirations of 21st century Jews. Throughout my years in the field, two terms have dominated much of Jewish education’s discourse about its purposes: “identity” and “continuity.” Jewish education, we argued, was our best means of “strengthening Jewish identity” and “ensuring Jewish continuity.”

This language, I would argue, is now outmoded. As a concept, “identity” is too vague to provide meaningful guidance in designing educational experiences and curricula, and its conventional translation into indicators such as ritual performances, positive dispositions toward one’s Jewishness, and acts of affiliation with Jewish institutions is increasingly out of touch with the dynamic and diverse landscape of contemporary Jewish self-expression. “Continuity” is perhaps a hoped-for outcome of effective Jewish education, but made into a goal, it begs the questions “toward what end and for what reasons?”—questions we know today’s learners, young and older, are asking.

So, what, then, should we be aspiring to achieve in our Jewish educational endeavors? Is there a Jewish analog to the Common Core and 21st century learning skills? Happily, just this conversation is now beginning to percolate across the full spectrum of Jewish educational arenas—early childhood education, day school, supplementary education, teen programs, Hillel and Jewish campus life, engagement efforts targeting young adults, and adult Jewish learning.

Over the last few months, I’ve had the opportunity to listen in on a number of these conversations, and I believe that a direction is beginning to emerge that holds great promise—albeit one that still requires much additional consideration, elaboration, and adaptation to various populations and settings. The common thread I see is a focus on helping learners engage with, appreciate, understand and employ characteristic and in some cases distinctive Jewish approaches to dealing with life’s challenges and opportunities—what we in our work at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah call “Jewish sensibilities.”

In this view, the ultimate goal of Jewish education is to inspire and equip Jews (and others, if they so wish) to use Jewish wisdom—derived from Jewish texts, historical experience, stories, practices, and communal interaction—to live more purposeful and fulfilling lives and to help shape a better world. The Jewish sensibilities we wish to encourage learners to internalize and express are compounds of cognitive, affective, behavioral and values-oriented elements—sensibilities like “betzelem Elokim,” “na’aseh ve-nishma,” “elu ve-elu,” “Shabbat,” “simchah,” and “brit.” (For a “starter list” of sensibilities, go to www.jewishsensibilities.org.)

These sensibilities constitute a Jewish vocabulary for addressing many of life’s deepest and most universal questions. But they also provide practical guidance for the here and now. Most important, these sensibilities, and others like them, are catalysts for ongoing conversation and creativity. Each opens up multiple and diverse possibilities for elaboration, interpretation, historical and textual exploration, and application in our lives. (For example, see what the organization Reboot has done to breathe new life into Shabbat with its “unplugging” manifesto and to building sukkot with Sukkah City.)

“Jewish sensibilities” constitute, of course, only one way to approach the organization and content of Jewish learning. What is important is less the specific approach than the general thrust: a thrust toward Jewish learning that is both deeply grounded in Jewish tradition and directly relevant to the lives—the whole lives—we lead today. For day schools, the discussion underway on the goals and purposes of Jewish education, the outcomes we seek and how we achieve these, should lead to a thoroughgoing rethinking of both the content and organization of “Judaic studies” and other Jewish components of the day school program, like tefillah and holiday observances. Clearly, cognitive learning—what we think of as “literacy”—is a necessary but insufficient part of what day schools can and should provide. And if we think of our desired outcome in terms of how our students live, individually and as a community, and not just what they know or how they identify, then making the connection explicit between what and how they learn and the “sensibilities” we hope they bring to their lives becomes a paramount focus.

Many day schools are already well along this path (and RAVSAK is providing strong leadership and support for this journey). Whether we ever codify the 21st century Jewish learning we seek in a “Jewish Common Core” or come up with a handy mnemonic to identify its key elements is immaterial. What is critical is that we recognize that we seek far more than “identity” or “continuity.” We seek to enrich and ennoble the lives of our students and their families, and through them, the society and world that we live in. And we do so by trying to bring alive for them the accumulating wisdom of a complex, multifarious tradition of which our learners are both inheritors and shapers. It’s a daunting task, but one we can embrace with humility and enthusiasm.♦

Dr. Jonathan Woocher works in a senior capacity with the Lippman Kanfer family on its philanthropic and educational initiatives. jon@lippmankanfer.org

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Size Matters

In the Jewish day school ecosystem, schools can range from a few dozen students to more than a thousand. How does school size impact education, school governance and administration? Articles in this issue address a range of challenges and successes found in small day schools, while looking at the issues large schools face as well.

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