When You’re Happy And You Know It: The Purpose Of Jewish Education
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When You’re Happy And You Know It: The Purpose Of Jewish Education

Students at a Jewish school in Midwood, Brooklyn. MICHAEL DATIKASH/JW
Students at a Jewish school in Midwood, Brooklyn. MICHAEL DATIKASH/JW

If I was to be audacious enough to write a comprehensive goal for Jewish education in the new year, it might go something like this…

The purpose of Jewish education today is to ensure that Jewish tradition empowers people to thrive in today’s world.

For Jewish education to be successful, it must hold at its core the mission to make people happy. If we don’t strive for this, Jewish education – and by extension living a Jewish life – will remain irrelevant for the vast majority of Jews today.

How could anyone posit a definition of Jewish education without primary attention paid to the transmission of knowledge, literacy and skills from one generation to the next?

We’ve tried that approach – and it no longer works. At least not for who the Jewish people are today. We’ve tried filling our people with texts and language, prayer and maps – all because these are the things our children ought to know in order to understand and perpetuate the type of Jewish life practiced in their respective communities. The net result? While some Jews may crave this type of content-based learning, many people, especially those who do not live in traditional communities, find it irrelevant and completely disconnected from their lives.

David Bryfman
David Bryfman

What I am suggesting here is indeed subversive – it counters the objectives of many premiere Jewish educators and institutions and inverts the historical focus of Jewish education in a great many settings.

For successful Jewish education to occur, we must declare that the most essential element of Jewish education today is not our curriculum, not our educators, not even our Torah and certainly not our houses of learning. The element that matters first and foremost in Jewish education today are our learners.

To be clear: this is not a call to eliminate Torah or Jewish texts from our learning. Nor is it an ecumenical call that suggests we strip our tradition of its idiosyncrasies and particularistic rituals. But it is certainly a call to relate to our traditions in a way that has not been the Jewish educational norm.

Importantly the social context in which we currently exist is essential in informing this new vision for Jewish education. We live in a moment in time when Jews are overwhelmingly proud of being Jewish. As educators, the best way to capitalize on this phenomenon is to first focus on our students’ feelings. More specifically, doing everything in our power to make students feel happy – in the deepest sense of the term.

Not ‘happy’ in the smiley or laughing sense of the word, although the world surely needs a whole lot more of both these days. But ‘happy’ as in fulfilled; enabling young people to flourish by helping students feel like they are putting forth the best version of themselves. This type of engagement should allow our learners to be fully engaged in their lives socially, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. And enabling them to form lasting commitments that bring meaning and purpose to their lives.

If nothing else, Jewish tradition should help people to answer four of life’s most existential questions:

  • Who am I?
  • Where do I fit in to this world?
  • How can I live a more fulfilling life?
  • How can I make the world a better place?

Conveniently, answers to all these questions are offered by scholars in the field of positive psychology. Martin Seligman, for example, proposes a set of attributes known as PERMA – Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment/Achievement.

Each Jewish individual will relate to the world around him or her in a unique way. For some, it could be that the concept of Shabbat signals a welcome break from the frenetic pace of everyday life. For others, it will be when a connection to Israel offers a deeper relationship to one’s heritage or people. Or perhaps it could be when Jewish teachings offer confidence to respond to the demands, stresses, frustrations and even tragedies that one encounters in life.

Jewish educators shouldn’t think of their task as simply to transmit a single canon to a group of learners, but individuating Jewish learning to ensure that it impacts as many different people as possible. If Jewish educators are unable to translate our tradition to the issues that really matter in people’s lives today, they will fail.

While there are more Jews today studying Jewish tradition than at probably any other time in the history of our people, the majority of Jews will only engage in Jewish learning when they can directly see how our tradition and heritage will help them to thrive, flourish and above all, be happy.

 

David Bryfman is the chief innovation officer at The Jewish Education Project, which recently held a Jewish Futures Conference called Happiness Hacks. This essay first appeared in ejewishphilanthropy.

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