If we are going to look at the future of Jewish education, at some point we are going to have to stop talking about technique and look at the content. My assumption is that not only are we going to be teaching in a host of new ways, but that we are going to be teaching for very different ends. If the student of the future demands a whole new approach, then the school of the future grows very different skills.
We know that the child of the future will enter with a very different set of skills and a very different learning context. We know that the families of the future will practice their Judaism in very different ways: synagogues will be less central, Israel less overarching. And ethnicity will be the strongest Jewish connections. Parents will be making very different demands. We know that (a) there will be few content demands, (b) Hebrew will not make any more of a difference that we can give to it, (c) life cycle will be more brief (think of shiva as “one” and not “three”) and (d) seeing as parents feel that they learned nothing (and are just as good for it) their worries about their children’s knowledge will be less so. And witnessing those who show up, (e) intermarriage is not the apocalypse.
Parents who want will want a strong Jewish identity, but don’t confuse identity with a sense of obligation. They will have strong commitments towards Justice, but they will not connect it to things Jewish. They want Jewish happy-times, for them and for their children, and so more than ever we will be in the edutainment business.
But let’s not focus on the negative. I don’t care anymore about what we can’t teach. I want us to focus in on the education that will still matter.
Jewish leadership is at risk
Jewish organizations are folding. We can witness the slow decline of above 48th floor offices in Manhattan. Leadership roles are at risk. We all know about the unsure placement of students from the major schools. We are producing too many rabbis, and jobs down the line are also being chopped off.
A micro-example. There was never a reason to have a Rabbi at a mezuzah hanging. Most Jews could handle one blessing and the Sheheheyanu. But since the 50s, Rabbis were needed. Where one always wanted “the Rabbi” to hang the mezuzah (and bless the house) now we have many more mezuzah hangings than employed Rabbis. More and more, Jews are doing it on their own. Moses did say, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Eternal’s people were prophets and that the Eternal would put God’s Spirit upon them all!” (Numbers 11:29)
Mezuzah Project Based Learning: Google “Mezuzah.” You’ll figure out the right number of z’s in the word. Buy a Mezuzah on line. Google “Klaf.” Then buy one of those, too. Find a mezuzah hanging ceremony on line. Hunt until you find one you like. Invite a few friends. Make some food. Start with your ceremony. Serve food. Have fun. Get hammer-manifesting Jewish identity. No two-thousand dollar plus a year synagogue membership was necessary.
What would today make a perfect 6th grade project (PBL) shortly turns into a rabbi-free free- range home self-improvement project. If necessary, find Shehehiyanu online and play the audio file.
Jewish education is shrinking with fewer schools, fewer professionals and fewer hours. Some places are growing. Those are the ones that have intuited Relational Judaism, et al. But the trend is a downward spiral circling three drains.
- Judaism is expensive and uses money better spent upgrading the house at Ikea.
- Jewish education offers little in a post ethnic North-America. Want to understand this, read Kveller for a few weeks. While it targets Brooklyn residents, and Miyam Bialik fans, it will give you the scoop about free-range Jews, those who live beyond the synagogue fence.
- Israel and Holocaust are no longer magic words. Holocaust has been so over used that it is now hard to say it sincerely. And while the apple of APAC’s eye, Israel, is way off the political correctness path followed by the Jews who are parents of the kids we are missing. There is nothing occupying the Jewish center and providing a sense of gravity. The need or non-need of French Jews to make Aliyah is not going to influence the American conversation.
Finally, education is so out of favor that the State of Florida is thinking of ending public education, giving it over to private companies and imitating the American prison system (Washington Post, March 1, 2012. Jewish education in the universe of charter schools will be interesting at best.
Let’s Make Some Assumptions.
- There will be Jewish schools, especially those in synagogues.
- Parents will choose for a number of complex reasons to send their children to those schools even when conflicted about it.
- While looking forward to great implosion, The North American Jewish Community will stand and, albeit in smaller numbers, and life will continue.
Together this means great climate change for American Jewry. Lots of our institutions will wind up on stilts, but will still function. Looking at the future curriculum of the Jewish school let’s talk about some truths.
- The elite (Days Schools) etc. will find themselves in demand because, despite cost, they will offer functional value, American Jewry will need a class that can read Hebrew, chant the Torah, and lead services. This also means running minyanim, starting new Jewish organizations, and being a generation of Halutzim—at home and in Israel.
- The schools that survive are going to be huge into relationships. Each one will be a lifeboat.
- The majority of survivors will need the skills of participation. They will not be able to lead a Passover seder, but they should be able to participate meaningfully in them. This doesn’t mean knowing about the history of the early and late dates for the Exodus or being able to follow the Aramaic in Had Gadya, but they are going to need to make it fruitfully to the afikomen. This means that a lot more Judaism needs to turn into mock experiences (projects or not) that practice the art of participation.
We are going to going to need to devote days to making costumes, grogging at Haman, and making real Purim fun enough to give up discretionary time to try for real.
4, If most Jews are only going to get good enough at making a Hillel sandwich and dipping their little finger ten times into a glass of wine, we are going to need a class of people who still know how to read the words and structure the ritual, and 8 rabbis for 3,000 Jews isn’t going to do it. We are going to need a whole layer of what Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l labeled “para-rabinics.”
- At the moment, Synagogue schools mainly provide background on Jewish activities. In the future they are going to have to do much more than teach vocabulary, because knowledge isn’t enough. There is a skill set to enjoying Simhat Torah. Real Simhat Torah created STITes (Simhat Torah participants In Training). Now mock Simhat Torah (for parents, too) has to lead towards real Simhat Torah where the participation is real and not simulated.
- It has been suggested that camp needs to be a congregation of practice to make Jewish life compelling. Now school is going to need to be a congregation of practicing to do the same. NOTE: I am not saying that model seders are good school programming.
- The Jewish year, Jewish life cycle, and Jewish home practices need rehearsal time before participation is possible. Community is the central element for most of those, and the school is going to have to make that happen. I once did a seder for my seventh grade class. The moment when all the students went running for the door when they had a mouthful of real maror made it worthwhile.
- We used to want our kids to know the story of the Jews. We have given them a Disney version of the holiday stories because Piaget watched kids play with marbles. History wasn’t learnable before puberty, the 4th, 5th, 6th grade history trilogy that made up the backbone of Jewish schools vanished because of developmental psychology, and then disappeared completely, because we could never find a post-Bar Bat Mitzvah slot in which to transmit it. The Jewish story now has to make a return because it has receded behind a few holiday myths. And the Jewish story that is not limited to the “oil burning for eight nights” needs to make a comeback. We can’t teach chronology until puberty, we can’t teach causality until puberty, but we can simulate the excitement of choosing “only Israel” as a goal at the 6th World Zionist Congress. Then add the power of a final group “Hatikvah.” We can teach moments and put them into our students’ memories. That is the way to build identity. History has to return as moments that we can later weave into a narrative.
- We still need Hebrew. Some spoken—Hag Samayah is still important insider code. We need basic rituals. It is a symbol for belonging. We need to know what to do with the Shema, even if it never gets a second or third paragraph. The good news is that technology should make all this easier. You will need less time and demand much less suffering to communicate a basic liturgy.
- Ending Bar/Bat Mitzvah would be nice. Not believing that it is the fulcrum that supports the lever that can move the world is necessary. It needs to become as mundane (not as special) as possible. You’re second time Aliyah, the one where you actually read Torah just for the community—that should be the big deal. Again, electronics can help.
- Israel 101 is easy. Ice cream maps and inventing new words for Eliezer Ben Yehudah is easy. It is 201, when Palestinians live there, too, is when it gets harder. Explaining Israeli politics and having Israel remain as the hero is harder. Israeli independence is easy. Add Ha-Nakba for young American Jews (Under 30) and the telling gets more complicated. Here is a place where a lot of work needs to be done. The story of the founding of Tel Aviv is easy. The settlements are more difficult.
- The Vocabulary of Justice is a good thing. While there are a few words like “chosen” to get us tripped up, Jewish values and ethics is generally a good thing. They are fertile soil to plough and plant.
- Then there is “God” and “Death,” areas where kids want to talk and we are often afraid to teach, and perhaps most need to teach.
Think of this outline as a scrawl on a slightly damp napkin, first thoughts. Your contributions are most welcome. E-mail in your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. Go ahead.