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.
As a proud graduate of the kind of community day school that Berger describes and celebrates, I cannot help but agree with the case he makes for a purposeful and “intentional” education. Yet I now find myself associated professionally with the kind of day school and community which are much more akin to the “natural” “mimetic” community which he describes, and it is through that prism that I read and respond to his remarks.
Currently, most, if not all, Jewish schools approach religious and spiritual growth in a non-systematic way, uninformed by the wisdom of the fields of psychology, sociology, and general religious education. When Jewish schools do approach this topic, the outcome is often a program or seminar, as opposed to a more global understanding that is infused into all aspects of school functioning. Parents, students, and educators need guidance on how to inspire religious purposefulness in adolescents in an age when various media, and society in general, compete for an adolescent's attention.
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