When I began my career as a rabbi and Jewish educator, the primary focus of Jewish learning was content mastery. One could master Tanach, Talmud, Hebrew literature, Jewish history. Our metrics for success were longitudinal outcomes: graduates’ memberships in campus life and in adult synagogues, future support of Jewish causes, and reduced interfaith marriage.
Along came the Information Age. Our quest for content mastery was helped by technologies that put content into convenient places, cross-referenced and hyperlinked. Yet, as all this great content became easily accessible, infinitely more content appeared. With that came the
realization that nobody was going to be able to be the kol bo, the person who could master everything. As the ability to access Jewish knowledge was flattening the playing field, people looked to create their own personal brand of Jewishness and Judaism. Finally, there was recognition: Dues memberships no longer effectively measured success and that interfaith marriage was no longer universally accepted as a measure of failure.
With this arose the growth of networks and collaboration. The new wisdom became: Since you can’t know everything, know more people. Fill in blanks in your knowledge and in your Jewish life using technology and your network.
In practical terms, I know good amount of Talmud, but am history challenged. If I need the historical context that tells me why an ancient rabbi ruled on an issue in the way that he did, I can crowdsource it. Someone in my network will know the answer.
And our students? They, too, cannot master all content they need to lead exceptional Jewish lives, given challenges of time, budgets, and such. What they can master are skills and motivation linking them to Jewish knowledge, Jewish wisdom, and the Jewish people. Along with that must come the ability and desire for Jewish learners to create their own paths,
balancing what it means to be an individual Jew with what it will mean to be part of an emerging Jewish community of the future.
My humble opinion is that the goal of Jewish learning today is to build the connectivity — the capacity — that empowers Jews to connect to other Jews, Jewish families, Jewish communities, and Jewish wisdom and knowledge.
Being a Connected Jew
I propose defining new success measures in these areas:
Connectedness to the Jewish people:
- Connectedness to Jewishness.
- Connectedness to Jewish historical experience.
- Connectedness to Judaism.
- Connectedness to Jewish texts, wisdom, and values.
Connectedness to the Jewish people:
- Number and percentage of Jewish friends and social contacts.
- Participation in tzedakah under Jewish auspices and/or benefitting Jewish recipients.
- Participation in Jewish community events and organizations.
- Following news related to Jewish communities and to Israel.
- “JEWDAR” – The ability to spot other Jewish individuals and to find one self in a group of
- Jewish individuals in social settings.
Connectedness to Jewishness:
- Visiting Israel.
- Reading Jewish authors who write about Jewish characters or Jewish concerns.
- Owning Jewish or Israeli art and music.
- Consciously purchasing Israeli products.
- Inviting those who are not Jewish to partake of Jewish events or observances.
- Engaging in family conversations around issues of Jewish interest.
- Connectedness to the Jewish historical experience:
- Relationship to the Jewish calendar – Connectedness to Jewish holidays, ancient and modern.
Connectedness to Jewish historical events – Knowing the major events in the history of the Jewish people and affective connection to those events.
- Involvement in Jewish genealogy – Curiosity about one’s ancestry.
- Connectedness to modern historical events – The Shoah and birth of the State of Israel are recent enough to warrant special mention as events to which the connected Jew will have a particular affinity.
Connectedness to Judaism:
- Participation in Jewish rituals, such as fasting on Yom Kippur, attending a seder, reciting blessings, lighting a Hanukkah menorah.
- Using Shabbat and Jewish holidays to mark time and to rest (however s/he defines it).
- Observance of some level of kashrut and/or Eco-kashrut.
- Participation in Jewish study
- Having a mezuzah on the door of his/her home.
- Increasingly the practice of mikva, long the domain of only the Orthodox (and even there, not universal), is entering the mainstream as a feature.
Connectedness to the Jewish wisdom, texts and values:
- Ownership (and actually opening) a Tanach.
- Ownership (and reading) Jewish books: classical as well as contemporary Jewish wisdom and knowledge.
- Regularity of visits to websites dedicated to Jewish wisdom and texts.
- Participation in volunteer work that is motivated by Jewish values.
Jewish Connectedness — Why Be Jewish?
The goal of all Jewish learning must be to build the capacity of all Jews to connect. That connectivity requires social skills, technological skills, and critical thinking. It also requires a shared vocabulary (including basic Hebrew knowledge) and shared cultural expectations. The knowledge to be mastered today is that which gives the Jewish people the ability to play in the same sandbox, including understanding the shared stories that define us.
In today’s world, why be Jewish at all?
1. Being Jewish provides a lens through which to see the world. Being Jewish is not there to close us off from our neighbors (or spouses or other family members who are not Jewish); it is a way of relating to them that is grounded in our experience.
2. Jewishness is a means to an end — the goal of a peaceful world, one in which human needs are met.
3. Jewish peoplehood, as expressed in community, is a powerful model for other peoples of the world.
4. Being Jewish is a path towards the Godly, the holy.
5. As Jews, we contribute to the cumulative wisdom of the world in which we live. Our people’s wisdom and literature are a part of humanity’s wisdom.
Let’s join forces in looking for how to best educate connected Jews for an exciting Jewish future.
A version of this article appeared in NewCAJE’s online journal, The Jewish Educator. Other articles on this topic may be found on the NewCAJE website, http://www.newcaje.org.