Bridging The Academy And The Community

Bridging The Academy And The Community

The argument for crossing over to spark innovation and creative thinking.

Erica Brown runs the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University. Her new book is “Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet” (Koren/OU).

Scholar Eva Mroczak leads a session on prayer in ancient Israel as part of academic-communal partnership at University of Pennsylvania.
Courtesy Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies
Scholar Eva Mroczak leads a session on prayer in ancient Israel as part of academic-communal partnership at University of Pennsylvania. Courtesy Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies

Someone at a recent educational gathering shared this question: What does a non-Jew call the non-Jewish world? The world. I laughed, and then I paused. As a Jewish world, we don’t always realize how small or parochial we are at times. We think the Jewish world is the world because it’s the world we know best. We don’t even realize that we are living in an echo chamber of our own making.

With this new year, perhaps we will embrace a new commitment to get out a little. Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of Omega, a large adult education provider in areas of health, wellness and spirituality, has started an initiative: Take the Other to Lunch. She is concerned about the increasing fragmentation in the United States, the way that we choose our news outlets and communities to be a reflection of our income, our education, our faith, our politics, our opinions. Yet all around us — in school, at work, in our neighborhoods — we find people unlike us. They have different faith commitments, come from different countries or sexual orientations and lead lifestyles different from ours. Despite the fact that this diversity dwells in our midst, we rarely open our lives to it.

I would love if you took the Other out to lunch, but I’m going to make it easy. What if the other is another Jew who is not like yourself? And then take someone out who is really Other. I may have shared this vignette publicly, but I’ll repeat it because it was so bald in its innocence and its bias. After teaching several classes on the Hebrew Bible at an area Reform synagogue, a participant came up to me at the break and asked if I wouldn’t mind discussing my own denominational affiliation with the class. “I’ve never met an Orthodox person like you.” Naturally, I asked her how many Orthodox people she knew. Unabashedly, she shared her answer, “Only you.” See what I mean when I say we don’t get out much?

There’s another Other that deserves consideration in this time of fragmentation. Perhaps in 2017, we can get those who are studying Jewish life and those who are running Jewish institutions to spend more time talking to each other. For too long, the relationship between the academy and the Jewish community could best be described as benign neglect. Academics did their work. Jewish communal professionals did theirs. Every once in a while, there is some crossover, like a federation hiring a demographer to study its community, but for the most part, everyone is still eating lunch alone.

Academics research critical areas of Jewish life. There are professors of Jewish studies who are helping us understand the intricacies and mysteries of our past, who delve into who we were during the Second Commonwealth period, or analyze the ideology of the early Zionists or offer important research on the Holocaust or on the advancement of the Hebrew language. There are those who do interdisciplinary identity studies in Jewish life: on gender, on interfaith relationships, on the changing Jewish family. They can help inform how Jews see themselves at present. There are statisticians and Jewish sociologists who tell us what is trending and help us evaluate those trends in shaping our future. There is cutting-edge work in education: in pedagogy and curriculum development, differentiated learning, educational leadership and learning for those with special needs. All of this research creates a greater understanding of the Jewish world and Jews in the world, allowing us to mold the future by understanding the past and present.

There are CEOs of major Jewish organizations who are tasked with the boots-on-the-ground running of this large and amorphous “thing” called the Jewish community. They don’t have the luxury of libraries and long vacation days to contemplate and read and write. They are actors in this Jewish universe who have to raise money and raise consciousness and create strategic directions for local Jewish institutions while inspiring support for Israel. They need the findings of researchers to do their work with deep knowledge, but many of them don’t even know that they need these conversations.

Conversely, many academics think they don’t need to be attached to the Jewish communal world personally to study it. Some academics volunteer to teach in their area Hillels or synagogues or in an adult education program, but many don’t. They are proud of being dispassionate observers. Higher ed can sometimes be so high that those inside the ivory tower can’t be seen, let alone heard.

What would happen, I wonder, if we did a better job bridging the academy and the community, convening spaces where greater interaction rather than token interaction becomes the norm? This is what CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Leadership and Learning, is attempting with a new initiative at the University of Pennsylvania that brings rabbis and academics together to create a bridge of ideas. That’s what I’m trying to do in the arena of Jewish education with a new initiative at George Washington University: the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. In the future we hope to develop new graduate degree programs in Jewish education, a distinguishing feature of which will be close partnerships with local and national Jewish organizations.

A central tenet of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, where the Mayberg Center is housed, is engagement between researchers, educators and communities in which teaching and learning happens. We also plan to offer a certificate in Jewish literacy, aimed primarily at Jewish communal professionals, as the only “non-Jewish” university to do so. The center will convene annual conferences to tackle areas where integrating research with what’s happening in the trenches can change the way we live and work.

It’s a big dream but not an impossible one. I hope it sets a precedent for a new way of thinking and being. Our Jewish world is pretty binary right now in lots of ways. And it’s not just who is in and who is out. It’s the provincial mindset that what we’ve done is what we will always do, even if it’s not working very well. That limits innovation and progressive thinking. It makes us less than whole.

True, you don’t need an academic setting to do this. Sometimes it’s a matter of buying someone lunch and asking for some wisdom from the boardroom or from the library to help chart a new course or resolve a problem. But there are important advantages to connecting the academy to the community: I regularly hear from senior leaders in Jewish communal life that they don’t have time to think. Every once in a while, I’ll speak to a university professor who says that he or she has too much time to think. Doesn’t that sound like a match? This year, take yourself out of your comfort zone and put yourself into a dynamic and beautiful tension around ideas and the way they are lived.

New Year’s Resolution 2017: Take the Other to Lunch. You might discover that the Other isn’t really Other at all, and that you’ve both grown in wisdom from the exchange.

Erica Brown, who directs the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University, writes the monthly “Jew By Voice” column for the paper.

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