When I was asked to join the distinguished group of signatories to the Statement on Jewish Vitality, I was pleased to do so. I am not, by disposition, a hand-wringer. If anything, I tend towards optimism. But I agree that the American Jewish community faces a set of significant challenges that we should not ignore.
This, I think, is the main message of the statement. Many of the signatories differ about the specific policy recommendations, the most obvious being the one about tax policies related to day school tuition – a recommendation that is surely far too tentative for some, and wholly anathema for others. And as some have already noted, these ideas are hardly revolutionary. But that’s the point. We already have a toolkit of well-developed and well-documented ways to build stronger Jewish communities. What we seem not to have is a communal and philanthropic commitment to support them, or a sense of urgency in doing so.
I was pleased that the invitation to sign the statement also included the encouragement to offer commentary or additional perspectives. The goal, in other words, is to provoke discussion. In that spirit, I offer three caveats:
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This post is by Orit Kent, who was director of the Beit Midrash Research Project.
“Does the Torah hold us or do we hold together the Torah?” asked Josh, my 7th grade student. This philosophical question arose out of intentional study of core skills and habits of mind for learning text in partnership. He was in a course created and taught by my colleague, Allison Cook, and me. Partnership learning, or havruta text study, highlights the notion that “learning depends not only on the content that is encountered but also on the nature of the encounter itself between text and learner.” (A Philosophy of Havruta, 41) It is in the encounter that the potential for dialogue and transformation exists.
A Philosophy of Havruta examines these encounters—between reader and text, and between readers themselves. In Jewish education, we have long focused on the content, and for good reason. It offers a portal into a rich culture, history and religious practice and seemingly infinite possibilities for learning. However, we have often overlooked the nature of the encounter with that content and thereby missed an important opportunity to help students fully harness and cultivate the potential of the text, of each other and of themselves. If we want Jewish learning to teach people new ideas and help them “be”, we must pay more attention to the encounters we create and the skills that are necessary for engaging in them. Continue Reading »
By Jonathan Krasner
When President Barack Obama declared at the first White House reception for Jewish American Heritage Month, in 2010, that America must “uphold the principle of tikkun olam—ourobligation to repair the world,” he became the latest in a parade of prominent American politicians, celebrities and opinion-makers, including Bill Clinton, Cornell West and Madonna, to invoke the term. The Americanization of tikkun olam reflects its ubiquity in American Jewish life, where many religious and communal leaders identify it as a core Jewish value.
This is remarkable when one considers that prior to the 1980s most American Jews had never heard the term. Continue Reading »
This guest blog post is by Rabbi Noam Silverman, Ph.D., principal of Hebrew and Jewish studies at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, CA.
Have you ever wondered why so many Biblical characters were shepherds? The original Big Three: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Rebecca, and Rachel. All of Jacob’s sons. Moses and even King David. All shepherds. Not one farmer, weaver or innkeeper.
According to one traditional interpretation, the shepherd embodies important qualities that are also central to leadership, such as the ability to lead others and care for individual and communal needs. Working as shepherds helped our Biblical forefathers nurture the capacities to be leaders of people.
But this comparison is also troubling – because people aren’t sheep. Sheep are meek followers. Sheep do what others tell them to do. Sheep lack autonomy and creativity and fiery independence. Do we really want people to act like sheep? Continue Reading »
This blog post, by Shaul Kelner of Vanderbilt University, is part of our series from the Pedagogies of Engagement in Jewish Studies seminar.
Shaul adds: This blog post is written in memory of my teacher, Alan Nuccio a”h, whose Western Civ curriculum inspired and informed my thinking about teaching Jewish Civ.
The Zohar may seem an unlikely text to use for the first session of a 100-level Introduction to Jewish Studies class. I chose to open with it, however, for three reasons. First, it is a great equalizer–as foreign to students with K-12 Jewish day schooling as to those who never met a Jew before in their lives.
Second, for students comfortable that they know “what Judaism says,” encountering the Zohar helps them realize that pat answers won’t serve them well in a college class. Chances are, their prior experience has not introduced them to a Judaism that conceives of humans affecting the balance of spiritual flows in a ten-part Godhead. Better to keep an open mind and focus on understanding the text.
Third, it is a great text for teaching writing. Continue Reading »