Another Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur have come and gone and you pat yourself on the back for having made it through the long synagogue spell, dutifully reading the prayers just how you’d been taught in Hebrew school as a youngster. But now you wonder if knowing how to read the Hebrew words is the sum of your identity as a Jew. What about what those words represent, what about your emotional connection to them as a Jew in the 21st century?
What you feel as an adult in synagogue is a reflection of a process that started a long time ago. As a former Hillel director, I encountered a disturbing phenomenon among college students where many were too “Jewed-out” to take part in any Jewish activities while on campus. The majority were raised in an intensive Jewish day school system and simply chose to opt out of Jewish life, at least during their college years. For many, their frustration stemmed from a Jewish educational experience that fostered a separated, ghetto mentality that focused entirely on their narrow Jewish selves. They came to university to engage with the universe, and the Jewish education they received seemed irrelevant to this pursuit. So they simply chose to suspend their Jewish journey.
A fundamental flaw with much of Jewish education in America is that it forces us to view Jewish identity within a vacuum. The goal of imparting students with as much Judaism as possible often leads teachers and administrators to ignore equally — if not more — discussions about focusing on the challenges of living a Jewish life in a predominantly non-Jewish world. What we ignore is the importance of teaching our children how to engage as “a Jew among the nations.” This doesn’t mean abandoning Jewish particularism; it just means supplementing it with a more holistic approach. Our children should graduate the Jewish educational system with pride in their inheritance, humility in what they know (and how much more they could know), and the knowledge that their Judaism provides added value for negotiating modern life.
Good education revolves around a trifecta of knowledge, feeling and doing — or, anatomically speaking, the head, heart and hand. For instance, an ideal education system would work to inspire young people to believe they have the ability to change the world (heart), and the ability to identify problems and assess various solutions (head), and it should provide them with the skills necessary to implement those solutions throughout their life (hand). Can we honestly say that our current educational systems approach their work in such a holistic manner?
For those of us immersed in the field of informal Jewish education — where we can engage enormous numbers of youth in profound, life-changing ways, particularly in immersion “mountain-top” programs including summer camps, service-learning programs and Israel experiences — our challenge is how to enhance the “head” aspect of the formula.
Informal education can enhance the formal education sector’s approach to “head” matters, there is much to be learned from our approach to the heart and hand. Schools must make a greater effort to institute spaces for students to be inspired and active. Whether it be through peer leadership and group experiences, or volunteering and community activism, inspiring students to be involved and showing them that they can have a significant impact, are critical components to education.
The High Holy Days are about reflection and rededicating ourselves to the future of the Jewish people. The Jewish New Year coincides with the start of the school year so there is no better time for us to embark on a communal soul search. As educators, we are given the holy mandate of inspiring, training and teaching our youth to fulfill the Jewish mission. Let us hope the shofar’s clarion call will wake our educational community out of its inertia and into reevaluation and re-engagement.
Simon Klarfeld is the executive director of Young Judaea, the oldest Zionist youth movement in the United States.