Renewal in Jewish Education

We are known as a people who value education, and for a good reason. True democracy can only be enabled by an educated citizenry.

The tradition of Jewish education goes back to biblical times. One of the basic duties of Jewish parents is to provide for the instruction of their children. We ourselves are taught that the world of Judaism rests on three pillars: Torah (study), Avodah (worship), and Gemilut Chasadim (acts of loving kindness).

Throughout the generations, Jews have prioritized studying and learning. Community support is clearly seen through the building of our schools. This is true historically for a range of educational institutions that we have built, from the Yiddish folk schools of the early 20th century to the Jewish day schools that now exist in many cities and within the public education system.

The international non-profit organization Stand with Us clearly states in its mission statement that education is the road to peace.

In Israel, higher education plays a pivotal role in the economic and social development of the country. Demographically, 38 percent of the population attend universities and 41 percent are enrolled in colleges, while 21 percent participate in courses through the Open University. The Pew Report shows that 59 percent of American Jews have college degrees, compared to the 27 percent among Americans overall. In addition, 31 percent of American Jews have post-graduate degrees.

Over the last several decades of the continued development of Jewish Education, the exposure and nature of this education has shifted. Regardless of the sector, day schools, religious school, camps and youth programs, there have been significant changes in how Jewish education is delivered. This is particularly significant in non-Orthodox populations. This reimagined execution of Jewish education using informal educational methods and multi-generational programming has had a  momentous effect on our view of education.  One example is Taglit-Birthright Israel. It uses informal educational methods as it’s focus, and the program is so successful, demand completely outstrips supply.

The contemporary Jewish experience, convincingly suggests that informal Jewish education is a serious and legitimate partner in Jewish education. The more well-known Jewish educational paradigm can work in conjunction with the enthusiasm and creativity of informal education. This allows informal education the potential to be a powerful complement to Jewish schooling. Together, enriching personal Jewish lifestyle and deepening collective Jewish identity.

Within education we must remember that the objective of Jewish studies is not to prepare our kids for the workplace. Yes, there are attainable skills to acquire but unlike the secular model of reward based on measurable accomplishment, the objective of learning Torah is very different. There is no value in comparing one to another when it comes to Jewish studies. The benefit is happiness generated by internal growth and the understanding of our purpose in the world and our connection to our Creator.

We should aim to live our lives by honing our own abilities, we don’t deepen our Jewish selves and connection with G-d through competition. Jewish growth is often synonymous with personal growth. It only happens by stretching ourselves, surpassing self-expectations and ultimately fulfilling our unique potential. The objective is not to perform better than anyone else. Using this concept as an educational model is an avenue to success.

It is no surprise that the intended accessibility of Jewish learning is compromised when Jewish Studies learning and values are treated like ordinary subjects on the class schedule.  By teaching them in the same way as secular studies we link the same frustration of accomplishment-driven grading.

Education has always been a necessary prerequisite for participation in the full kaleidoscope of Jewish life. Throughout history, the Jewish community has prioritised learning with the establishment and maintenance of a rich educational network. There is no dispute to the link between a strong commitment to education and  the perpetuation of Jewish literacy, Jewish lifestyle, and the Jewish nation.

We need to reach for the principles that have sustained us, take our values  and continue to re-imagine Jewish education. Using the wisdom of the Torah and the application of 21st century tools, we can continue to develop, and create a paradigm for Jewish learning.

About the Author
Abi Taylor-Abt is an outstanding Jewish Educator and Curriculum Developer who has worked in the field of Jewish Primary and Secondary Educational Curriculum Development for over twenty years. She is the author of Lessons in Jewish Learning - a grab and go curriculum for communities and Jewish schools. Originally from London, Abi spent time living in Israel, South Africa, England and the United States. After working in Boise, Idaho, Abi spent 5 years in Israel for the second time whilst her children served in the army. She is currently Director of Education for Yachad a combined educational endeavour between the conservative congregation of Beth Shalom and the reform community of Temple Emanu-El in Michigan, USA. A 2018 recipient of the Klein/Grinspoon Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, Abi is also awaiting the video version of her recent ELI Talk Detroit Speaker Fellowship.