I believe in pluralism. But, when it comes to Jewish knowledge, I also believe in the fundamentals.
Columbia University has a core curriculum. Educated Americans recognize “Four score and seven years ago,” and understand cultural-historical references such as “the answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.”
Why don’t we expect the same when it comes to what we know about Jewish history, texts, and traditions?
Clearly knowledge of and fluency with Jewish ideas are critical to the flourishing of the Jewish people. That is, a Jew may have a strong sense of Jewish identity, but without knowledge of Jewish traditions and text, that Jewish identity is a house without a foundation. No matter one’s politics, no matter what one’s Jewish practices are, Jewish life is enriched by ideas from Jewish texts, traditions, and history. Certainly, there multiple sources of knowledge one might choose to study, but there are some foundational ideas without which it is hard to build a solid grounding in Jewish understanding.
At Hillel International we are strengthening expectations for what our professionals need to know about Judaism, with the goal of educating the estimated 400,000 Jewish college students we serve. With the generous support of the Maimonides Fund, Hillel’s Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience is launching the Engage2Educate initiative to recruit entry-level professionals with Jewish fluency and rich Jewish experience. Hillel will train these professionals to engage students and become dynamic experiential educators.
In developing this initiative, we’ve had to define what we mean by Jewish fluency. We created an assessment to measure a person’s Jewish knowledge, ease of recall, and ability to teach others. We are currently beta-testing this assessment with the goal of strengthening the high standards of Jewish fluency for all Hillel professionals.
When we talk about “knowledge,” we’re not only talking about formal education. Life experience is critical, too, as Jewish experiences are often not ones that can be taught. They must be beheld firsthand. Shabbat, for example, cannot be fully understood by reading or hearing another person describe it. Similarly, the unique nature of learning Torah in chevruta can only be appreciated by firsthand experience.
As we roll out Engage2Educate, an odd tension has arisen. Hillel prides itself on being one of the most inclusive, pluralistic Jewish organizations around. Will this aspiration for Jewish fluency create an unwanted sense of exclusivity at odds with our pluralism?
We hope not.
In fact, Hillel believes that Jewish knowledge and fluency will strengthen our pluralism. By learning more about Jewish traditions and ideas, we will learn to ask new questions. Exposure to ideas, people, and opinions that we’ve never before encountered will shatter assumptions and misconceptions. Ensuring that Hillel staff has a core base of knowledge will allow for productive, and sometimes difficult, conversations, and will facilitate student exploration of new terrain.
Non-sectarian and open institutions such as Columbia University, the U.S. Department of Education, and professional accrediting bodies require a baseline of knowledge. So should we.
Abi Dauber Sterne is the vice president for Global Jewish Experience and director of the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience at Hillel International.