Why our Jewish education should catch up to our secular one

Estelle Frankel teaching Torah to adult learners at a Valley Beit Midrash event.
Estelle Frankel teaching Torah to adult learners at Valley Beit Midrash.

We all know the stereotype of the Jewish mother who wants nothing more than for her child to become a doctor. But this centering of education in the lives of Jews plays out in reality as well.

A 2021 study by the Survey Center on American Life, and interpreted by Samuel J. Abrams for eJewishPhilanthropy, found that 80% of Jews “were expected to pursue a degree at a four-year-school,” compared with 41% of Protestants and 42% of Catholics.

Of course, the value the Jewish world puts on education is excellent. I worry, though, that our emphasis on secular studies has outpaced and replaced our commitment to our Jewishness. Yes, Jews are being educated, but we must also ask, are Jews being educated in the fullest, richest way — or is something lacking, particularly when it comes to our education in the Jewish tradition?

We are more than willing to — in law, medicine, whatever our chosen field — spend many years in school, well into our adult lives. In our work and in life in general, we love to consider ourselves “students” and even “lifelong learners.” But if we truly care about the thriving of the Jewish people, the Jewish tradition, our spiritual lives or our impact on the world, I believe that we must bring the value of education to Jewish study also.

Professor Eitan P. Fishbane teaching Torah to adult learners at Valley Beit Midrash.

We, as Jewish educators, Jewish professionals and Jewish adults overall, need to make one of our top priorities a commitment to lifelong learning.

We often find ourselves as people with Ph.Ds and MBAs, but who have a seventh-grade understanding of theology and spirituality, and text interpretation. This not only leads to an experience of Judaism that falls far short of the rigor our intelligence demands, but makes us feel inadequate and severely underconfident in times when we do earnestly approach the tradition.

I’m here to tell you that all of that is fine. In diving into Jewish education as an adult, you will find that there is so much more to the Jewish tradition than you thought from Hebrew school. And thanks to your secular education, you are ready to take it on. It is accessible, and at the same time, it will challenge you.

As educators, we must recognize the high potential of adult learners in our community, and provide programming that will stimulate them on an advanced level, regardless of their prior experience with Judaism.

We must reevaluate the value of learning. In its purest form, it is not primarily about career success (as important as that is) or income potential or prestige. It should be about intellectual growth and the ability to think creatively, cultivate moral imagination and develop emotional intelligence.

In dialectical and dialogical Talmudic learning, we can be challenged to think outside the box. In learning mussar and hassidut, we can learn to see beyond surface reality. In learning Tanach, we can remember the power that stories have to transform our lives. As a student of halacha, we can be pushed to reconsider normative dimensions of our spiritual lives. In studying history and liturgy, we can gain new perspectives on where we have come from reimagining where we’re going. In studying Hebrew, we can gain a new appreciation of the power of language.

Professor Paul Mendes-Flohr teaching Torah to adult learners at Valley Beit Midrash.

You might think that we’re calling for a sacrifice here, with managing a career and a family and personal health and social life. “How can I be expected to also robustly engage in adult learning?” you might ask. I believe you will find that adult Jewish learning can actually enhance all those other dimensions of one’s life and beautify them.

And most importantly, it can move us from anxious obsession about our outer life toward deeper contemplation about our inner life, and this will shift our measures of success and quality of life.

Perhaps we’ve completed our formal education for career purposes, and the time is right to “catch up” in Jewish learning.

Especially today, most people don’t easily find meaning in prayer and Torah services. Those same people, however, often and to their own surprise, find that deep and sophisticated Jewish classes are immensely meaningful to them, even — especially — if they find themselves lost and bored in the synagogue.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz teaching Torah to adult learners at Valley Beit Midrash.

“The synagogue needs to be converted into an interactive bet midrash, or house of study,” Rabbi Arthur Green wrote in an essay called “Envisioning a Jewish Future.” “Learning should become its best-known and most popular activity. The synagogue should be as full on a Tuesday evening for bet midrash night as it is for Shabbat services.”

We are part of one of the greatest moral enterprises, when we can master Jewish learning and secular studies and creatively reinterpret and reapply them to the greatest ethical challenges of our time, such as how we welcome refugees, help those experiencing homelessness and address the behemoth problem of climate change.

We care about education, and we need to keep caring. In doing that, I hope we can remember the full picture of the value of learning.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.
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