It’s fashionable these days to question the future of Jewish education, particularly because of its price tag. Amid much communal hand-wringing over cost and sustainability, day schools have slashed operating budgets, sought efficiencies through cost-sharing, and even pioneered blended learning with hopes of taming the public outcry over affordability. But to some observers, there’s a larger crisis looming, and it doesn’t concern the cost of Jewish education, but its value. What is a Jewish education worth, broadly speaking? What return on investment can parents expect to receive after a dozen years of paying day school tuition? Aside from developing Jewish literacy, knowledge and skills, will students who graduate from our Jewish institutions absorb the value-added elements of belief, commitment and morality? Are educators even conscious of this mandate for meaning?
These are some of the provocative questions raised by Rabbi Alan Haber in a recent essay published by ATID. Haber observes a steady decline in religious identification and practice among graduates of yeshiva high schools, including those with one to two years of post-high school study in Israeli yeshivot or seminaries. He attributes the drop-off (and, in some cases, drop-out) to an absence of “God talk” in the classroom, the treatment of Torah as a purely academic pursuit, insufficient time to process and personalize religious teachings, and the relegation of spirituality to informal educational settings. Teachers may even contribute to the marginalization of all things spiritual by treating God as the pink elephant in the classroom.
The effect, Haber claims, disconnects religious knowledge and practice from religious belief, increasing the likelihood that day school graduates will emerge highly knowledgeable about their faith but uncertain if they want to keep it. To inspire students to seek life-long attachment, Haber champions a “subject-centered” approach to teaching that consciously and deliberately incorporates spiritual lessons into the curricula; provides time for students to reflect on the spiritual significance of what is being studied; and integrates, whenever possible, elements of affective and informal education in traditional learning.
The long road to faith is paved with simple aspirations – small matters that give way to larger meanings. To create stronger currents of belief in the system, educators must start with the “why” of religion, belief itself. Schools must treat faith matters with deliberate intent, weaving them into curricular learning objectives, re-training teachers to understand complex theological questions, and establishing a formal and energetic place for students to discuss how informative Jewish learning makes for inspired Jewish living. And while there are multiple ways to teach, Jewish educators must hold to a basic truth: Good Jewish educators teach subjects. Great Jewish educators teach students. That’s because Jewish education seeks the development of religious personas that, once removed from the confines of the classroom, fill the world with their intellect, morality and goodness. Knowledge that is built on faith stands the test of time and circumstance.
For much of my educational career, I’ve appealed to the “Jewish brain,” believing that a real Jewish education ought to convey the depth, rigor and authenticity of Jewish ideals and ideas. Due in part to my own day school experience, which aimed for the heart but not the mind, I’ve tried to communicate a version of Judaism that is intellectually strong, rooted in timeless text, and substantive enough to convince students, upon maturation, that their religion (and not another’s) can be a destination for the mind. My long-time belief has been that if Judaism is going to be relevant, it needs to feel rigorous.
Maybe it’s time for me to soften my position. To prevent the spiritual fatigue that sets in during adolescence, training the soul must commence at the outset of a child’s education, starting with more “God talk” in the classroom. It begins with asking hard questions, both of our students and ourselves – questions like, “Why is knowing this important?” and “Why does God ask this of us?”
Sometimes, the answers will be accessible. Other times, they’ll be elusive, if not downright invisible. But supplying the answer may not be as important as introducing the question. Ultimately, Jewish education must be preoccupied with the goal of getting subject matter…to matter. Clearly, standards count. But standards also need soul. To maintain its relevance and its reach in an age of immediacy and impermanence, Jewish education must sharpen its focus on matters of lasting consequence, beginning with the purpose and presence of spirituality in the classroom. William Butler Yeats once remarked that the goal of education isn’t to fill a vessel, but to light a fire. For the Jewish educator, that means handing students a matchbox. The tools of faith are complex and sometimes difficult to handle, but, once delivered, help us construct meaning out of the mundane.
In our liturgy and tradition, Hanukkah is regarded as the holiday of Jewish education (from its root ‘hinukh’), a theme that is underscored by the re-dedication of the Temple. Then, just as now, we struggled to make Judaism vibrant and meaningful against a backwash of counter-cultural influences. Those small flickering flames of the menorah — symbols of the Jewish spirit, to this day — remind us how important it is to ignite a passion for purpose in an age of immediacy and inattentiveness. This is the hope and the promise of a Jewish education, one that touches both mind and soul with its everlasting light.