Learning about Learning

Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Brandeis University

Author: Jon Levisohn (page 1 of 5)

Passion in Religious Education

Do we need to cultivate the inner spiritual life of our Jewish educators, as Aryeh Ben David claims? Certainly we do. But as Ziva Reimer Hassenfeld has argued in response, based on recent empirical research at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis, many teachers already bring a passion for Judaism to their teaching. Passion is not enough. What those teachers need, she continues, is “the professional development necessary to foster skilled, reflective practitioners.”

I agree with Ziva’s argument, but I’ve also been thinking recently about another aspect of the issue. Sometimes passion is not enough—but sometimes it is too much. When a teacher demonstrates passion, when a class seems to get drawn into a focus on the teacher’s persona, does that inevitably threaten the boundaries between teacher and student? Does it interfere with learning? Is it simply too dangerous? Continue reading

Who’s Afraid of Assimilation?

Antique postcard of a family celebrating Rosh HashanahIn Jewish education and policy circles, the typical attitude to assimilation is clear: it’s a bad thing. In fact, it’s often taken to be the thing that Jewish education is supposed to help us avoid. In other words, the assumption is that educating Jewish students “Jewishly” (setting aside what that might mean, for the moment) is counter-assimilatory.

Conversations about assimilation often use one of two metaphors. The first is a biological one: assimilation is a disease and education is the inoculation against that disease, or at least provides the healthy nutrients to strengthen the body against it. Stuart Charmé calls this a “drink-your-milk” model of Jewish education. The second metaphor is martial: assimilation is an assault and education is a defense against that assault. For example, Seymour Fox once asked whether Jewish education was succeeding as a “bulwark against assimilation.”

But what do we actually mean, when we use these metaphors? What’s the disease, exactly, and what’s the organism that is being threatened? What’s the assault, and what’s the fortified position? Both metaphors rely on dramatic oppositions between in and out, between Jewish and other – distinctions that no longer hold, regarding practices and ideas, and even regarding community. They assume a zero-sum model of identity and culture that is utterly alien to the lived experiences of contemporary Jews. Continue reading

How to Think About Transformative Jewish Education

Boy emerging from cave

This post is based on Mandel Center Director Jon A. Levisohn’s introduction to the recent Conference on Transformative Jewish Education, held at Brandeis in March. The conference web page has more blog posts and other resources.

When people describe Jewish educational programs as “transformative,” what do they mean?

Some argue that “transformative education” is an empty bit of hyperbole that does not mean anything in particular. There’s no reason to believe that there’s any well-reasoned conception of transformation that grounds the use of the terms. And there’s certainly no reason to believe that those who are using this language have any evidence that their programs are actually transformative for their participants.

The skeptics have a point. We often make claims about our programs that we cannot really justify. And there’s no reason to think that, each time someone uses the term “transformative” to describe a program, those usages can all be subsumed under one coherent conception.

Nevertheless, when we talk about “transformation” in Jewish education or use the adjective “transformative” to describe a program, there’s something else going on. The term, I believe, points to a desired outcome: an aspiration for the program to have a certain kind of impact on the participants. Continue reading

Three Cheers for the Jewish Vitality Statement – and Three Qualifications

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:

Continue reading

What Should a Vision of Jewish Education Do For Us?

Jon A. Levisohn is director of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, and the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Professor of Jewish Educational Thought, at Brandeis University. This post is an abbreviated version of his recent article, “A New Theory of Vision,” in HaYidion.

My colleague Danny Lehmann has shared some constructive, generative ideas for Jewish education in the 21st century in his recent article in HaYidion, in which he argues for creativity, hybridity, transformative spirituality, and more. Do these ideas constitute a vision? Well, that depends. Continue reading

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