All efforts of the educational curriculum should be built around four common places: the student, the teacher, the subject and the environment -or social context-. These places largely define the shape of any education system, including the Jewish education.
Today the Jewish education system is in a transitional period. To understand where we are going it is useful to observe these four common places and how each one of them is being -or could be- transformed.
If Jewish education aims to prosper, it should naturally attract and enthuse a new and different type of student. Students today are more diverse, more eager to have something to say about their own education, they are completely technologized and are much more interested in the meaning and significance of learning. Their worldviews are much more global than those of students a couple of decades ago. This shift in the characteristics of the type of student represents both a challenge and an opportunity for Jewish education. As a people we have always seen the Jewish learning as a lifelong effort and not a venture that informs children for a short period of time. And also, since the early rabbis, tradition has made a huge effort to make Jewish studies universal and not just the possibility of a particular caste or elite but an integral part in the life of every Jew.
How can we make all of these aspirations true? The key is to make a huge effort to make those who are being educated to be true partners and co-creators of their own educational experiences. The Jewish education system today is designed around suppliers. The system of tomorrow needs to focus on students and all of their diversity. We have to ask ourselves what are our students seeking, rather than determine what it is that we want them to know. How can we help shape their own learning journeys? How can we make them aware of the resources and opportunities that exist and make it easier for them to move within these possibilities? The number of potential students toward Jewish issues is huge -and it includes many non-Jews- but we have to change our approach if we expect that potential to flourish.
This also means rethinking who our teachers are, where and how do they teach. Without a doubt, Jewish education needs well-trained and motivated teachers that will also be well rewarded for their efforts. But, in our tradition, learning and teaching are two sides of the same coin. Even today, we have many more potential teachers than the system demands. And in the future? Imagine that our programs are equipped with “learning teams” including veteran educators with younger people and a wide variety of “average Jews” who are students themselves. What kind of a message would this Jewish learning program send as a whole that spans a lifetime? Every Jewish student can find both a role as a teacher in some way -in a formal setting, at home, as a mentor, as a participant in online discussions- and of course, each teacher will be above all an exemplary Jewish student.
What is it that we teach?
What we can say about this third “common place”? For much of the twentieth century the manifest or latent goal of Jewish education was to make the Jews even more Jewish. The content of Jewish education has been tinted by this purpose. Much of the Jewish learning is designed to motivate and equip Jews to make “Jewish things”: attend synagogue, prepare for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, observe Shabbat, Jewish festivals and other rituals; participate in Jewish organizational life and support Israel and other Jewish causes. While these are admirable goals, they are unable by themselves to answer the fundamental questions that many Jews are still wondering: why should I care about these actions? How does Judaism add meaning, satisfaction and purpose to my life?
Rethinking Jewish education as essentially the quest to understand the meaning -rather than developing knowledge and skills- and to try to be a better Jewish human being -not just another committed Jew- is a subtle change, but with very deep implications. This means approaching Judaism without considering it an endangered object that must be protected or accumulated, but seeing it as a rich and multidimensional system that can be used to live a good life and therefore should be explored from many different angles, enriched with new contributions, and shared. In an era of global identities, a synagogue-only Jewish education does not go far enough and won’t do justice to the ambition of the same Jewish tradition to shape our lives in general and not just the parts of it that take place in Jewish contexts.
The Jewish education must change because our relationship with the environment in which we live has changed. The twentieth century was a rollercoaster of tragedy and triumph for the Jewish people. But a new reality in Jewish history has clearly been established: we no longer live separated or isolated from the broader world. We live fully as part of the world today with all that this implies. The politics of the general world are our politics, their trends are our trends, their technology is our technology and vice versa. Despite our tiny numbers, we will be part of the story that unfolds. For centuries, Jews learned to fear the outside world and see it as a threat. Although some groups still preach these ideals and certainly this is a source of concern for many Jews, fear will not help us or inspire us as educators or students. We need to be much bolder and imagine that we can actually change the world, at least in a small measure, to put it more in line with our ideals. Considering all of this, Jewish studies will lead the Jews not only to a more fruitful relationship with the Jewish tradition, but they will also lead the tradition itself to a more fruitful and profound relationship with the world and history.