The overriding purpose of the observance of the Passover Seder and all its many rituals, says the Torah, is v’hee-gadta l’vincha—to teach your children. To teach them their family narrative that allows them to grow from their roots, giving them the knowledge and the confidence to claim their place as children of the Jewish people who received the Torah at Sinai in all its particulars.
At a time when Jews increasingly tend away from a religiously distinct identity, preferring to put their support and sympathy with the other (sometimes even going so far as to express solidarity with those hostile to Jews and Israel—often in the name of universal values), how do we, parents, teachers, educators, advance the principle of v’hee-gadta l’vincha, specifically of ba-avur zeh asah Hashem li, bringing G-d and mitzvot into the equation?
Who better to consider this dilemma than people passionate about Jewish education? We asked several such individuals engaged in various Jewish educational models to explore this question from their unique perspectives in the field. We asked them to consider how we might better nurture Jewish children today to grow proud to identify with the Jewish people and the particulars of our tradition—the mitzvot specific to Jews and around which Jews bond with each other—as they do with its universal values.
One of our Judaica teachers, Rabbi Cohen, received a phone call from a distraught mother. Their dog died suddenly, and her son, his student, was inconsolable. Even though it was ten o’clock at night, he insisted that she call Rabbi Cohen and ask him what prayer he should say for the dog.
Another one of our students fell asleep on his parents’ bed, and while they carried him back to his room, somewhat asleep, he stretched out his arm as they walked through the doorway to kiss the mezuzah.
During summer vacation, as Eve’s mom was walking through the hall gathering laundry, she heard singing in a language she couldn’t place. She peeked into her daughter’s room and saw her on her bed, singing her prayers from her siddur (prayerbook) that she learned in school. She asked her why she was praying and she said, “It makes me feel good.”
One of our Day School graduates volunteered to chair a national challah-baking project at her university, where the challah is sold to raise money for people who are hungry. She remembered that at Day School, she learned that challah-baking is a mitzvah. She shared this with her supervisor and peers and taught them that when baking challah, we separate a piece of dough that will be burned and say a blessing. She explained that it is symbolic of Temple times, when a piece of the bread was given to the Priest. In addition, it teaches us that whatever we are given is not for our use alone.
Why do these kids feel so strongly about these Jewish practices outside of the typical Jewish framework?
Why are they driven to continue to practice what they have been taught, when it is not expected? I believe that there are three foundational practices that can accomplish this goal.
A. Teaching children, especially of the elementary age, about their heritage and religion is a golden opportunity to light a fire that will continue to burn throughout adulthood. But we must take care to provide the deeper meanings, sources, and explanations for the text, history, holidays, and practice. Skimming the surface and engaging only in the superficial practices of our traditions, like gefilte fish, hamantashen and dreidels will not keep our children close. Children are capable of grasping deep, spiritual concepts. Teaching Judaism without its depth, layers, and spirituality will end up like a balloon that quickly deflates.
Posing questions that challenge status quo, like “Why can’t we use a trumpet on Rosh Hashanah instead of a shofar?” prompts them to seek the answers in our texts. Or, “How can we find G-d in the Megilla, when at first glance, He is nowhere to be seen?” Or, something even a little deeper like, “How can we leave Egypt in 2016?” since we are meant to experience redemption from slavery in our own personal lives.
B. G-d needs to be front and center. When G-d is present during the discussions, the activities, the meals, the games, the lessons, and the conclusions, children bond in shared awareness. When pulling Popsicle sticks to decide who will partner with whom in class, so that no one is hurt, we point out to the students that ultimately G-d is deciding who will be partners. When we want to eat anything, a blessing is said, creating an awareness of His presence. Judaism is not just present in the synagogue, during Judaic studies, or at lunchtime. Taking a moment to visualize the pleasure we are giving G-d when doing a mitzvah is another way to create the connections with G-d.
C. Last, but certainly not least, teachers who live what they teach, and teach what they live with joy, are the key to the longevity of the message. As important as it is to have well trained teachers in the field of education, it is just as important, if not more so, to have teachers who actually mean what they say, and say what they mean. When the teachers truly believe, live, and love what they are transmitting, the children embrace the message completely.
Graduates from our Day School return to us after college to reminisce about the “long ago” stories of courage and faith that they still remember from their elementary days. Or they come to tell us how thankful they are that the tefillot and birkat hamazon were taught so well that no matter which synagogue they go to, they seem to be one of the most comfortable attendees there. Our graduates are the ones that are excited when approached with a lulav and etrog on Sukkot or tefillin in Manhattan. They’re not groaning. They’re texting their friends and parents how cool it is that they had the opportunity to do another mitzvah.
Mariashi Groner and her husband, Rabbi Yossi Groner, are the Rebbe’s emissaries to North and South Carolina. Mariashi is the founder of The Jewish Preschool on Sardis and Director of Charlotte Jewish Day School, a Jewish community day school, member of RAVSAK – The Jewish Community Day School Network.
A Particular Lens To A Universal Perspective
Dr. Marc N. Kramer
The Pew Research Center study on Jewish Americans notes that 70% of Jews in the US attend a Pesach Seder, making it the most widely celebrated Jewish ritual. Of all the myriad ways we Jews express our Jewishness, why does the Seder reign? How does a ceremonial meal predicated on the particulars of Judaism nonetheless touch the lives of so many Jews who are otherwise focused on secular living and universal values?
The answer lies, I believe, in the engaging and explicit way that the Seder blends the description of Jewish history and practice with universal themes that resonate broadly. Indeed, one might posit that the defining challenge of contemporary American Jewish life is the tension between particularism and universalism. It is increasingly difficult to hold the two in balance; the center gives way to polarization, with the more traditional Jews in the particular camp and the majority in the universal camp.
The Haggadah provides a beautiful, authentic Jewish model of balance: a particular narrative of a specific people, unfolding in ways that highlight the universal values of freedom, justice, and self-determination. Maybe it is because the Seder serves as a holding vessel for both values that even the most distant Jew manages to find his way to a Seder. Or perhaps, the Seder endures as our most cherished rite because it is rooted in questions rather than driven by answers.
The profound wisdom of the Seder, centered on the command vehigadta l’vincha, lies in having the children formulate their questions first, and only after are parents called on to fulfill their obligation to “teach your children.” When the parents do respond, they speak differently to each child, each according to his way. While the Haggadah certainly lauds the wise child, even the question of the so-called wicked son is addressed with seriousness, if rebuke. The message is palpable, powerful, and clear: there is space at the Seder table for all who show up. Skeptics who engage enrich the conversation through their questions as much as devotees do through their adhesion and wisdom.
As parents and educators, we must think like the authors of the Haggadah and empower our children to discover their own questions, to find a path to learning and meaning that arises from deep within themselves. Children should be encouraged to lead through questioning, to know that the things that cause them to wonder are wonderful and worthy of our rapt attention. We must help them understand that the questions they ask are resonant with those raised by Jewish children since the days of the very first Seder, and the answers we share are thus linked to the answers offered by our ancestors.
Of course, our call to action must go beyond words. As parents and educators, we must unabashedly embrace the particular values, customs, and mores of Judaism—yes, I mean mitzvot, and I mean a personal and communal relationship with Hashem—and demonstrate how these become a lens through which to understand and engage with universal truths. We must surround our children with differing examples of Jews who make Judaism work, highlight the joy and meaning Judaism can bring, and help them see that if we are to understand and engage with the world around us, we must first understand ourselves. It is incumbent upon us to help others see that Judaism can be the vantage point from which they view the rest of the world.
The Seder gives us a model of a Judaism that validates learners, empowers them to ask their own questions, and sets them each on his or her individual path to make meaning of our traditions. It offers an invitation to all Jews to learn, experience, and contribute, to bring their own perspectives and knowledge to bear while we forge a new shared memory rooted in our past and directed to our future. It offers our children the hopeful messages that they are capable participants in Jewish study, that Jewish ceremonies are powerful occasions to unite us, and that the diversity within the Jewish community can be a source of strength. Thus today as always, the Seder is an ideal model of Jewish education–all year round.
Dr. Marc N. Kramer is Co-Executive Director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network
Improving The Jewish Day School
Jewish organizations everywhere are spending enormous energy to “increase” numbers. Outreach programs seek secular adults who might be brought closer to Judaism through studying Torah. NonOrthodox Jewish day schools reach out to public school and secular private school families to convince them of the yettobeappreciated value of a Jewish education. College programs, like Chabad on Campus and MEOR, inspire Jewish students to reconnect with their ancestral traditions.
Who is focusing on strengthening our core? While we fill our empty seats by pulling people from the outside, are we losing sight, even neglecting our core audience, and by extension, our Jewish mission As parents and as community members, our mission is to ensure that Jewish children are prepared to go out into the world as adults and fulfill their obligations as practicing Jews and as a light unto the nations. Today, fulfilling that mission must also focus on the core observant community. As leaders in the field of Jewish education, we need to rededicate ourselves to empowering observant families to promote the value of Jewish day school education and to transform the committed day school families into an army of day school recruiters. First, we must ask ourselves why these families are not already engaged in this task. What are we missing?
Two ingredients are lacking to make this a reality. First, day school parents must be delivered a quality product. We can no longer perpetuate the fiction that our schools are excellent and that they prepare our children for proficiency in whatever comes next. All over our nation, there’s an emerging recognition that school systems, both public and private, are failing. They haven’t changed with the times or reimagined themselves for nearly seven decades. Jewish day schools are no different and remain woefully behind the times when it comes to pedagogy and curriculum. When we, in many cases, offer a stale and inadequate product, how can we expect intelligent consumers to honestly promote the product to others? We need objective excellence in our schools if we expect our parent bodies to be honest advocates in their nonday school social circles.
But more than improving the product, we need to clarify our mission. What are we promoting when we champion Jewish day school education? It is not just about Gemara and Chumash. It’s not just about college prep and advanced placement courses. Those are all parts of a great Jewish day school education, but each one is not adequate on its own. The message of Jewish day school education is that Torah is at the center of everything, and education without Torah is pointless. At the same time, Torah education without adequate preparation for adulthood in the world is insufficient.
The Torah requires us as parents to teach our children Tanach, Talmud with all the classic commentaries, including Halakha, Aggadah, and the gamut of interpretations of Pardespeshat (literal), remez (allusion), drush (homiletic) and sod (mystical). Our children need to know how to fulfill their ritual obligations as Jews. The Torah also clearly tells us that we must teach our children to earn a living, to provide for their families. And we need to excel in all worthwhile fields of endeavor. That doesn’t mean all of our children should go to Harvard or even aspire to go to secular college. Jewish education can take many forms, and the outcomes are as varied as the Jewish souls who receive it. But we need to allow our children to achieve their educational potential, so that the next Maimonides can be both a Torah scholar of the highest esteem and also a Nobel Prizewinning physician or scientist. “Education should teach a child how to live a better life, not only for the individual, but for the advancement of society as a whole,”said the Lubavitcher Rebbe. We owe our children that opportunity.
We need to transform Jewish day school education, show parents what an excellent Jewish education can look like, and then we need to provide it. “The single most important social institution is the place where we hand on our values to the next generation – where we tell our children where we’ve come from, what ideals we fought for, and what we learned on the way. Schools are where we make children our partners in the long and openended task of making a more gracious world,” (Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, From Optimism to Hope, 1984). If we can be honest with ourselves about what we are and what we aren’t, and if we can take pride in that truth, then we can put Jewish education forward as an aspiration and an ideal, not a sacrifice. Then we will only have to prepare ourselves for the onslaught of Jewish parents of all stripes begging us to let them in.
David Magerman David Magerman is president and founder of the Kohelet Foundation. David also researched artificial intelligence at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center where he developed statistical methods for understanding speech and language. David is a founding member of the newly established Beit Moshe, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Merion, Pennsylvania.
Teaching Na-aseh V’Nishma
The holiday of Passover has many names reflecting the different aspects of the holiday. One name is “zman cheiruteinu,” the time of our redemption and freedom from Egypt. Many are inspired by this holiday of freedom to champion the cause of all suffering people. Yet, this attitude ignores the fact that Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt that occurred to a specific people for a specific purpose: to enable the children of Jacob to stand at Sinai, to become a Jewish nation by receiving the Torah and dedicating themselves to live it, learn it, and pass it on for generations to come.
So how do we pass this message on to our children and students? In many Jewish schools, Torah is treated as a textbook instead of as our G-d-given blueprint for living our lives in holiness, thereby becoming a light unto the nations. It is for this reason the Torah states (Devarim 4:6) “It is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations.” No doubt we see evidence of this throughout history, as elements of Judaism certainly have universal appeal and have thus become the foundation for other faiths as well as for the civil laws of Western society.
But we must not forget that Torah means “instruction” (Zohar III 53b). Every part of the Torah is meant to teach us something. Maimonides says: “Verses such as . . . Timna was a concubine” (Bereishit 36:12) are no different from verses such as . . . “Hear O Israel” (Devarim 6:4), since they are all from the Almighty’s mouth.”
The universal values that are recognized by the world at large are part of a greater system. As with any system, they are only as effective as their weakest links, and they depend on all elements of the system working together. Judaism, as instructed in the Torah, is a system of interrelated parts, and without the full system in play, we lose the integrity of those values embedded in it. These values then become victim to subjective, personal manipulations, and justifications. We need not look too far back in our history to see how universal values were applied by human beings to only certain segments of humanity but not to others. These warped views continue to drive our headlines today.
At Sinai we were given three types of laws: Eidut, Chukim, and Mishpatim. Laws about marking time, like Shabbat, which testifies to Creation, Passover, and Sukkot are called Eidut. Laws that seem logical and universal are called Mishpatim. These laws, such as honoring parents, not to kill, not to steal, and to be fair in judgement are easily understood; they make sense to us and are therefore easier to keep. But there is a third category called Chukim. These are laws that do not makes sense to the human being, laws for which no reason is given in the Torah. In this category we find the laws of (Kashrut), laws of purity and impurity, and the laws forbidding the mixing of wool and linen, to name just a few.
As Jews we are commanded to keep all categories with equal fervour and enthusiasm. We are explicitly taught that we do not fulfil mitzvot because they make sense or make us feel good, but because G-d has commanded us to do so. This attitude protects us from allowing our subjective opinions to decide how to implement Torah values. It is not a case of pick and choose, but a system in its entirety.
Certainly, Judaism encourages self-expression and using our rational minds to understand what we do as best we can, but that only comes after we have accepted that there is much we don’t understand; yet we commit ourselves do that too. It is for this reason that at Sinai, we said “Na’aseh v’nishma” – “we will do and we will hear,” i.e. learn and understand in that order. Our commitment to Torah makes our value system worthy of universal inspiration and guidance.
Dr. Sara Rosenfeld, Chabad representative in Melbourne, Australia since 1989, is the Director of Curriculum for Foundation (Pre-1A) to Grade 12 at Yeshivah and Beth Rivkah Colleges. She has taught high school, teacher’s training, and adult education courses across a number of schools and training institutions, and has written numerous Jewish Studies curricula that are used worldwide. An author and trainer for the Zekelman Standards for Chumash, she works for the Menachem Education Foundation.
Family History Curriculum
A new website named “familysearch.org” promotes the study of family history. “Involve children and youth in family history,” it proclaims. Knowledge of family history, it explains, “gives children of all ages a sense of their place in the world.” It also offers young people “something to live up to – a legacy to respect,” as well as an opportunity for them “to make a meaningful contribution to something bigger than themselves.”
Familysearch.org offers a multitude of helpful ways through which parents, grandparents, and teachers can involve young people in family history activities, such as telling stories, sharing heirlooms, and celebrating with food. “Make family history a fun and positive activity for children,” it suggests. “Try different activities, according to a young person’s interests and personality.” “Involving children and youth in family history,” it concludes, “can change their lives.”
For Jews, all of this good advice sounds wonderfully familiar. Long before there was an Internet and long before the term “family history” even existed, we had Pesach. Much of what “familysearch.org” recommends is already found in the laws and customs connected to the Seder.
In teaching Jews to recall their shared family history –yetsiat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt – the Torah’s central commandment is “vehigdta levinkha,” you shall tell the story to your children. But the Torah understands that a dry parental history talk concerning our shared past is unlikely, by itself, to have the desired impact. Precisely for this reason, surrounding commandments in the Torah mandate far more than just talk. They include celebration with food (“seven days you shall eat matzah”) as well as other engaging activities. V’higadta l’vinkha is necessary but in no way sufficient.
The genius of Pesach, as it developed through the ages, is that the imperative implied in the words “v’higadta l’vinkha” – to convey family history from one generation to the next — is embedded in a whole series of “fun and positive activities” that muster parents and children alike. These activities begin long before the holiday with house cleaning, changing dishes, and food preparations, and then continue throughout the Seder all the way to the singing of Chad Gadya that marks its conclusion. Not just talk but also songs, riddles, games, drama, food, drink, even the ritual “stealing” of the afikoman form part of this “family history curriculum.” The more engaging and enjoyable a Seder, the more likely it is that the commandment of vehigdta l’vinkha will properly be fulfilled.
Those worried about how to convey the particulars of Judaism to their children can learn much from the “family history curriculum” that we call Pesach. The fact that it involves multiple generations at once, that it entails doing and not just talking, and that it embeds historical memories concerning our shared past in “fun and positive activities,” rather than dry monologues, all help to explain why for so long Pesach has succeeded in conveying the essence of Jewish history from one generation to the next.
What the Internet has recently discovered, we Jews have known for a long time: “involving children and youth in family history can change lives.”
Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and Chief Historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History.
Teaching Jewish peoplehood was never as important as it is today in our democratic environment. Jews have never before and nowhere else except in the land of Israel lived in so hospitable a country. Nowhere have we ever been treated with the respect that we now enjoy. For this reason, we face the danger of giving up our particularity and seeing ourselves only as part of the wider society to which we belong. With the universalistic so dominant around us in the form of multiculturalism and similar ideas, we may encounter people–even our own children–who have difficulty with the notion that somehow the Jews were and are special. How do we tell our children and our wider community that G-d redeemed us–“Us He took out” (Devarim 6:23)–and that G-d punished Egypt, when it seems to be almost anti-democratic, even chauvinistic, to accord special status to our own people’s historical experience?
How do we teach our particularistic values, like our opposition to intermarriage, in an intellectual and ethical framework of respect for our neighbors and identification with the wider community in which we live. How do we explain to people steeped in universalistic values why Jews should retain their distinctiveness? How do you teach about our unique mission? Many years ago I heard the solution from the then New York University president, the late L. Jay Oliva. He was at a Jewish event, explaining why he thought that advancing the particularistic needs of the disparate parts of the NYU community was so important. He argued that our universal community–our humanity and responsibility to the world as a whole–can only be advanced when each of us, as individuals and as a group, brings our own heritage of particularity to the universal enterprise. The best whole is the sum of diverse and distinct parts, each making its unique contribution. This is the point that we have to get across. As Jews, our ability to participate in and to contribute to the wider society is dependent on our maintenance of our own individual and group identities as proud and loyal members of the Jewish people. When we strengthen these commitments within, we are ready to bring our beautiful heritage and tradition with us and to contribute to and participate in society as a whole. In turn, we must recognize that other groups within our society should and will bring their particular heritage as well. Our ability to establish an ideal society in the American democratic context is dependent on harmonizing the particularity of each of us with the universal goals and aspirations to which we all agree.
At the Passover Seder, we must stress two universalistic points: First, that the particular experience of the Jewish people is a model for G-d’s plan of redemption for all of us. Understood in this way, it is both a particularistic and a universalistic event that we are celebrating. Second, we need to make the point that we are only able to contribute to the wider society when we are strong in our own identity as Jews. After all, our Bible is the basis of many of the universalistic values that we all cherish. Passover and other celebrations of our particularity should be opportunities for proper emphasis on what makes us special, and on the joys and sufferings of being a Jew. But at the same time, we must explain that our Torah and tradition is replete with–in fact is the basis of–the universalistic teachings of the brotherhood of humanity and respect for all. Indeed, the story of our Exodus—the one we commemorate on Pesach–was formative in the anti-slavery movement in the U.S.
Consider the Kiddush every Friday night, which reflects the Ten Commandments, reminding us that because we were slaves in Egypt, we are obligated to grant a day off on Shabbat to servants and even animals. Is the lesson not obvious? It is through the observance of Shabbat–a mitzvah particular to a particular people–that we are instructed in the most universalistic message: “Do not despise the Egyptian, as you were sojourners in his land?” (Devarim 23:7) We need to remember that we learned these values from our own national experience as Jews.
By always balancing the teaching of the particularistic aspects of our tradition with those that teach our universalistic beliefs, we can raise future generations who will be able to live as proud and committed Jews in America’s unique democratic society, embodying true Torah perspectives and seeing the goodness in all Humanity.
Lawrence H. Schiffman is Judge Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and Director of the Global Network for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies at New York University.
Particular Vision, Universal Redemption
There is no simple educational formula that I know, except this one: that in our times, for people to flourish, education must take place between human beings as a communicative encounter and even a “binding” that makes the process and the participants “social.” The alternative to education as social experience is the prevalent suppression of the human and social dimension in favor of commodities—the world of things, of reduction to number, of measurement without meaning, of efficiency over fulfillment. Within that choice, between the participation in the social life of humanity and the aloneness of commodified, thing-like existence, there exists still another apparently binary opposition—between the universal and the particular.
Yet it is actually social experience that provides the key to avoiding both the pitfalls of a hollow universalism and the straits of constraining particularism. Today, modernity’s promise of human equality has become an “empty humanism,” devoid of any concrete sense of our place in history on the one hand, and of the transcendental being of humanity, on the other. We face a generalizing trope that is inauthentic to real living, socially specific, historical, striving human beings. At the same time, the world of modern industrialism has given way to a digital society, which loosens conventional anchors to the universal public sphere and which casts people defensively back upon the identity resources of particularism—often a narrow, parochial, xenophobic nationalism that draws its strength from hatred of everything that is different or “other“ from itself.
But not all particularisms must naturally exclude universalistic aspirations for the full and equal realization of all human being—for the acceptance and flourishing of the other. Through the lens of Chabad’s spiritual teachings, Judaism embraces both the particular and the universal. It can be the conscious reclamation and restoration of our historic identities, replete with its furthest transcendental aspiration for collective transformation and social redemption.
Here, a passage from the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s treatise, On the Essence of Chassidus, is pertinent: “The distilled essence of everything… necessarily possesses the following two characteristics: on the one hand, it is in itself distinct and separate from everything (for were it to be bound to any one particular thing, it could not then be the essential aspect of every thing); yet at the same time, because it is “essence,” it must also pervade and be found within everything.”
In that way, Judaism has at its essential core the religious foundation of the universalistic hopes of modern civic, democratic societies, creating the particular vision and the particular means for a full realization of the divine potential of all humanity.
That is what Jewish education could enable us to accomplish: an authentic identity that is true to the self, and simultaneously, a regard for the capacity of the other. It can and should be both. In the well-worn words of Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” In our terms, it means an education that is both particularistic and universalistic at once. Imitation and empty humanism, which might understandably and self-protectively deny its Jewish origins, perhaps recoiling from the historic trauma of the Holocaust, will serve no one well, nor will exclusion and separation. Not in society, nor in Education.
At the present moment, Chasidism, and Chabad especially, is arguably the most dynamic movement in world Judaism. Accordingly, the time and opportunity has arrived for us to ask: What would Jewish education mean if it were infused with this vision of human realization? And what would this mean for education more universally?
Philip Wexler is a Professor of Sociology of Education and Unterberg Chair of Jewish Social and Educational History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Empowerment Through Access
Jews take great pride in the universal significance of the Torah’s story of the Exodus from Egypt, and with good reason. It is the quintessential story of the triumph of freedom over slavery, liberation over subjugation, and victory over oppression. At the same time, the story has added layers of significance to Jews. We don’t just cherish the Exodus as an abstract story of liberation, but we convene a Seder to connect ourselves, personally, to the Exodus from Egypt as the fulfillment of G-d’s promise to our forefathers.
The Passover Seder is the paradigmatic model of the way that a story with a universal meaning can become important for an individual’s identification with the Jewish people. All of the tools of the Passover Seder are available throughout the year and, when utilized in creative ways, transform stories that happened to someone else into Torah lessons that build Jewish identity and a sense of solidarity with the Jewish People.
The Haggadah tells us: Keneged arba’ah banim dibrah Torah – the Torah speaks of multiple types of learners. At the Passover Seder, each one is encouraged to question. Parents and educators must do whatever we can to spark curiosity and questioning. It is equally important to give the learner the tools to engage in making meaning that will be relevant for his or her own life. In that way, Judaism is not merely composed of stories that happened to others, but rather contains building blocks of identity formation and links in a chain that binds generations to one another.
As Director of Education at Sefaria, a digital library and platform for Jewish texts, I work with educators who use ours and other digital tools to empower learners to explore our multi-faceted tradition and create meaningful relationships with the texts of our tradition. Sefaria partners with institutions to help students connect, collaborate, and create individualized paths for learning.
When people can read and understand the sources, including the classical commentaries, create their own resources, and connect to others who are doing the same, the conversation expands. In my work, I have seen that students feel differently about what they learn when they both articulate the questions and chart their own course toward finding answers, furthering exploration and learning. This type of deep connection supports Jewish identity development and long-term engagement.
Connect: People can’t celebrate the uniquely Jewish aspects of our heritage unless they are connected to the primary sources of our tradition. Children today are “digital natives,” and they expect to gain knowledge just by clicking. Let them see that Torah and technology do mix, and that there are 21st century methods for exploring ancient texts. Today’s digital culture presents us with the opportunity to easily access the full library of Jewish texts at the touch of a button, and the flexibility of these tools allows individuals to help shape their own learning trajectory. Knowing firsthand what is in the verse and what the classical commentaries have to say gives these students a strong bond with the tradition.
The educators I work with encourage students to work directly with the text, whether that means adding their own photos and videos to illustrate it or by writing their thoughts and reactions. This is not merely a matter of creativity; students feel ownership when they can actually work with the text directly, and finding and creating these resources online lends legitimacy to these messages.
Collaborate: Enthusiasm is contagious, and so is love of Judaism. As people look for community beyond just those who live nearby, technology allows people to connect with others throughout the world who share their interests. Seeing others engaging in the texts and lessons of our tradition can be inspiring for children and adults alike. Sefaria is one platform that encourages people, even elementary school students, to engage with a community of learners and to see and appreciate what other people are studying. Our publicly available source sheets, our activity log, and the collaborative tools we have created all allow people to learn and teach together.
Create: Learning should always be a generative process. As we study and internalize the texts and stories of Judaism, we must decide what these timeless messages look like in our own lives. Every holiday and every observance gives us the opportunity to create something new, whether it is a piece of art, a book, a ritual item, or just a new idea. For example, Sefaria has the full text of the Haggadah as a ready made source sheet. Having the traditional Haggadah in a digital format makes it easy for students of all ages to add pictures and commentary as well as to print and share. This is the kind of empowerment that takes creativity to a new level by allowing people to have a direct connection with the texts of our tradition.
This mindset and these strategies can allow all of us to enter the Seder, and all other nights, ready to learn.
The Call of Stories
I must admit that in my role as an educator as well as personally, I have never found it difficult to embrace both the particular and universal trends inherent in Jewish tradition. Throughout history and especially today, individuals define and emphasize different aspects of the universal v. particular debate. In whichever way they are explained, however, Jewish tradition, as well as classical Jewish sources, from the Torah through modern writings, reveals the inclusion of both tendencies, at times in harmonious complementarity, and at times in seemingly dialectical tension. To view and interpret the tradition or sources as exclusively particularistic or exclusively universal in outlook is an unambiguous distortion.
It should be understood that universalism is actually an inherent aspect of Jewish particularism, just as particularism is the source and heart of the universal lesson of Judaism. Of course all Jews are, like all other people, members of the family of man, but they are first of all, areivim zeh bazeh, part of one unit, of one existential, experiential, and integrated whole. Concern for the “other,” for the stranger, for the unfortunate in the world, is of great significance in the Jewish tradition. It is particularistically Jewish to be universal in a particularly Jewish way. For how can people truly understand or feel for the other, if they do not first know and understand and attach themselves to their own identity and their own roots? It seems to me that to claim to connect to and care about everyone in the same way results in not knowing how to deeply and genuinely care about anyone at all. Caring in depth and knowing how to care deeply can only emanate from personal knowledge and identity, as well as the experience of closeness and attachment.
How, can we communicate a compelling message of the value and richness of the particular Jewish tradition and approach in a world and in a Diaspora Jewish community that is familiar with so little of Jewish thought and tradition and, at the same time, attaches overriding value to radical liberal ideals and principles (e.g., cavalier absolutism in the area of human rights)? When knowledge of Judaism among the masses of Jews is diluted to the extent it has been, it surely loses its distinctiveness, its attraction, its personal and communal meaning. Whither Judaism and whither the Jewish people, if the unique, particular and historical Jewish story and contribution is allowed to fade into oblivion simply because of obliviousness?
As usual, the answer lies in education. But what kind of education?
Robert Coles, the Harvard professor of psychiatry and medical humanities, in his book The Call of Stories, demonstrates how the power of stories enhances our understanding of ourselves and others, our values, our past and future, and of issues in general. One could call Coles’ description a modern statement of the role Aggada has always played in Jewish tradition and history. Jewish stories from the Biblical, Rabbinic, medieval and modern periods are rich in messages that encourage and mandate concern for the other, that place value on multiculturalism, that promote tolerance of difference. But they also stipulate priority for Jewish concerns and traditions and allow us to see things through a Jewish lens. They provide direction for a healthy balance and a complementarity between what can be viewed as opposing norms, demands, and values. I believe strongly that dissemination and deeper knowledge of the Jewish stories and traditions that reflect the demand of Tikkun Olam in the larger context of Jewish values, principles and philosophies, can serve in an unthreatening way to engage and inspire the disengaged, indifferent, and uninformed.
Stuart Zweiter is the director of the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education at Bar Ilan University. An instructor in Talmud in Bar-Ilan University, he was a Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. In the U.S., he served as a principal at the HAFTR High School and at the Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey. He has served as an educational consultant to communities throughout the world.