Inspired by Aurora Mendelsohn’s open-ended FB question about coming up with “a list of ways stuff that is taught in the classrooms of day schools is ignored by the day school community”, I thought of a different thought experiment…
With the malaise of Jewish education still as thick as malaise-ess (with its viscosity increasing exponentially since the 1989 Tikkun piece by Isa Aron on this subject), this is as good a time as any to start a free-wheeling discussion about the potential of a Jewish day school education.
But first, some rules of engagement.
Participants must agree that the tuition model as it currently exists is unsustainable, classist (But what’s wrong with being classy?) and excludes so many families from meaningfully engaging Jewish tradition on a daily basis. So there is no need to further consider, discuss or condemn it any more than we already have… We have other gefilte fish to boil.
Participants must agree that day school education is a content-rich linchpin for the future of a viable Jewish community. (Summer camping is another…)
Participants must agree that despite all the hand-wringing, slickly produced brochures or Federation ads along Bathurst, day school education needs a good tweak, if not a solid kick in the pants.
So, let us call this imagined school BlueSky Jewish Academy.
Where would BJA be located?
Which aged-children would attend?
How much would it cost?
How would classes be organized?
What is the flow of a typical day?
What would its building look like? (Is this important?)
Should there be a flag flying from the roof?
What innovative practices would it adopt?
What aspects of existing school paradigms would it incorporate?
What would elements of the status quo would it dispense with altogether?
If there are more questions I did not ask, feel free to add them below.
Let the collective yiddishe köpfe begin to knock into each other and shake the earth with its profound wisdom and guilt-ridden indignation! I look forward to the ensuing hilarity.
I was live-tweeting the Tablet sponsored Beinart-Gordis debate last night.
If you like, you can search #beinartvgordis on twitter and sift through the madness or just watch the debate here.
I might have blogged about the exchange itself but, well, we all know better than to do that… but I digress.
Toward the end of the debate, someone posed the following question to both interlocutors: If you were in an elevator with a Jew totally disaffected with Israel and Jewish tradition, what would you say to her?
I should say that, generally, I am not a fan of Daniel Gordis. But something he said really resonated with me, especially in light of the piece forwarded to me by Chuck English – which I will address later.
Dr. Gordis recounted the story of the ger (lit. “stranger” although some translate it as convert) who came to Shammai then Hillel and asked each to explain the whole Torah to him “on one foot”. In the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 31a), as the story goes, a cheeky ger decides to have some fun with the two greatest luminaries of his day. So he goes to Shammai’s house first, pounds on the door, rouses the elder to pose the question: “Explain to me the Torah on one foot.” Shammai chased him away angrily. (Shammai always was a bit of a hard-ass.) Hillel’s reaction is less hard: “Do not do unto others that which is hateful to you. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” And the ger did.
Gordis explained that the ger’s question was obnoxious and insulting:
I wouldn’t take two minutes to try to convince someone to be a moral human being … I wouldn’t try to explain why loving someone is more complicated, but worth it. Two minutes isn’t enough to take the place of years of upbringing. We are too used to trying to fit big ideas on an iPhone screen.
To ask anyone to sum up in two minutes or less everything that gives one meaning in life (and then try to convince someone else of its meaningfulness) can only reduce that thing to meaninglessness.
In other words, (and gird yourself for a leap) marketing is the apogee (or nadir?) of superficiality. Furthermore, reducing complex, human experience and feelings into anodyne soundbites is nothing less than soul crushing. (Unless it is on an iPhone … then, it may be soul crushing, but still wicked cool.)
Was that a bit strong? Then how’s this, toned down from eleven?
Marketing has the potential to suck the life out that which it is trying to sell – and it generally does. Perhaps, then, we should not use marketing techniques to “sell” Judaism…?
And the story makes that point too… sort of… because, the tale, as generally recounted, makes for a nice sermon about being nice and welcoming (it’s how Chabad rolls…) – but it is a corruption of the story as it appears in the sources. There is not one ger but three. The first came to Shammai and said he would convert to Judaism but only on the condition that he be taught only the written Torah. “I believe you with respect to the written,” the ger says, “but not with respect to the Spoken Torah.” (As an educator of pre-adolescents, I cannot bring myself to say ‘Oral Torah’.) Shammai “scolded and repulsed him in anger.” Hillel used a different method: trickery. He taught the ger with one method on one day, then used a different method the next. When challenged, Hillel replied (and I am paraphrasing): “As your teacher, I guess you trust me as to what these letters are – so why not trust me on matters of Torah?” The second ger was the Torah-on-one-foot guy. The third ger, an ambitious fellow, came to Shammai and asked to be converted so he could, one day, become the High Priest. Shammai “repulsed him with the builder’s cubit which was in his hand.” Hillel agreed to teach him. Eventually, the newly minted Jew realized that not only he could not be High Priest but neither could King David – so he was in good company. The happy ending: Some time later, the three converts met up and agreed: “Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Shechinah.”
So perhaps a pithy rejoinder is enough to make a difference … if only Daniel Gordis had a really good copywriter with him in the elevator… (Peggy, where are you when we need you?)
However, what sermonizers tend to elide in their telling of this tale is that after the quick-witted Hillelian quips, the gerim actually sit down and learn. (Perhaps they do so under false pretences as Hillel does resort to trickery in two cases, but that is a blogpost for another time.) The tale obscures all the hard, oftentimes mundane work – but does acknowledge that, after many years, the gerim accumulate enough cultural capital (if I may wax sociological for a moment) to be literate, functional Jews. Hooray!
So what else might be learned from this oft-cited tale besides the need for a sexy quip? A sexy quip might attract you (or at least not repel you) but it is merely the opening sentence of a longer, millennia-long epic. And this epic, if it is to be engaged-with seriously, demands commitment – and, as in the case of Jewish education today, a lot of money.
So here comes Chuck English with a new marketing widget for 21st century education: Parents still want 20th century metrics so give them what they want. Perhaps I am reducing his argument to a sexy quip, flattening out its complexity and sucking the life out of it. But I re-read his piece again. And, really, there is very little more to it. Yes, there is some acknowledgement of the value of 21st century educational goals, to create learners nimble enough to contend with challenges as of yet conceived. But, as he quotes Seth Godin from Stop Stealing Dreams:
Parents don’t ask their kids, “what did you figure out today?” They don’t wonder about which frustrating problem is no longer frustrating. No, parents have been sold on the notion that a two-digit number on a progress report is the goal—if it begins with a 9.
So rather than try to educate parents and encourage them to transcend the old tyranny of the two-digit number, English advises (Jewish or independent school) educators to ostensibly give in: “We can’t be deluded by our own marketing material.” Tell parents what they want to hear about the school and their kids… just get them in the door. And then, like Hillel, do the ol’ bait and switch.
Where Shammai would chase away the disaffected with a stick and Daniel Gordis would not attempt to engage in light breeziness, Chuck English espouses Hillelian pithiness, empathy and… duplicitousness (?).
Is there a fourth path? Could we conceive of campaign where a well-crafted, blingy tagline attracts parents, but does not obscure or hide the school’s core Jewish values and pedagogical approach? Do tell – in the comments section below.
Where Yehuda Kurtzer’s well-worded smackdown of AB Yehoshua was, as they say in “the Land”, bamakom, my only quibble with Kurtzer is his telling AB to “pipe down”… It was a bit… well… I do not know. Strong. AB is entitled to say whatever he likes about Diaspora Jews. He is also entitled to receive a couple of cans of righteous whoopass from Kurtzer. That’s how civilized discourse works.
So when David Hazony penned his memo to American Jews, urging them to learn Hebrew, I, too, pondered telling him to shut up. Or, more appropriately: listom et ha’jora shelo… but that would be rude.
Instead, in the Kurtzerian mode, I will offer what hopes to be a more ad rem, or la’inyan rebuttal to the assertion that, to bridge the ever-widening gap, Diaspora Jews must learn Hebrew.
First, to the matter of Hazony himself. (Note: This is not the ad hominem attack portion of the program…) As an oleh, I had hoped that he would have a less wooden understanding of the Diaspora considering he was raised in it. However, from Hazony’s cartoonish portrayal of American Jews from the outset, one could say that, perhaps, his klita (absorption) into Israeli society (and the embrace of many of its stereotypic conceptions of the diaspora) was a complete success.
What, after all, should this son of Israel do with all those people who are not curious about the real Israel? All they want to talk about is rockets in Sderot, Mofaz and the haredim. Why don’t they know about Erev Tov with Guy Pinness or who broke out from the pack in Kochav Nolad or which government minister was being investigated for corruption? Why don’t they know that Israeli culture is vibrant and hip? Don’t they want to hear about the Israeli zeitgeist? Nope. Not one person seemingly does, according to Hazony, all they want to hear about are subjects that:
were either never that interesting to most Israelis, those that became obviated by events, or those that had their moment in the sun and then were lost to the public eye.
So I girded my loins for yet another round of “Scold the Diaspora Jew”, delivered by a knowing (naturalized) Israeli who, from his side of the gap, is more than happy to tell us on the other side how we should behave differently. Fine. Game on. (Just as long as we can return the favour… but I digress…)
In a nutshell, here is what Diaspora Jews are doing wrong: We are not consuming enough Israeli culture.
And how do we rectify this problem? Learn Hebrew!
Because, Hazony asserts, if we do not get on the “Israeli-civilization bus” (which requires fluent Hebrew), then
the less qualified they become to say anything at all about who we are and what we should or shouldn’t do.
Incidentally, the “they” in the previous sentence is referring to Diaspora Jews, and the “we” refers to Hazony and the Israelis in case you were wondering… (Upon rereading the quote, I wondered: Were “we” ever qualified enough to say anything, re: Israel that “we” can now become even less qualified to say? Hmm…)
Hazony goes on to present Diasporaniks with an ultimatum: Either love Israel completely, including the embrace of every unpalatable aspect of Israeli society, or love a “saucy dream”. (Perhaps I am overstating the love-it-or-leave-itness of Hazony’s statement – but not by much.) And the simple way to transcend the dreamy sauciness is the “800-pound falafel ball sitting in the room”: learning Hebrew. Because, I suddenly realized, learning Hebrew has the potential to make the Rabbinate’s hatred of liberal Judaism, Lieberman’s racism, etc. etc. all magically disappear – and then everyone, Diasporaniks of all shapes and stripes, can love Israel for the perfect sparkly unicorn that she is!!! (…Except that I already speak Hebrew and the not-so-nice aspects of Israel have not become, like frosted Lucky Charms, magically delicious… [frown] Perhaps I am oversimplifying…)
I do not think Hazony should be grateful (which is how he regards the Diaspora-Israel dynamic – either you make demands or be grateful) – but I do think that perhaps, sitting in Israel, he might take a bit more pause before demanding that Jewish educators everywhere revise the American Jewish educational agenda. He goes on to say that, perhaps, this demand is not really so outlandish at all.
And, in fact, it is not. In the Greater Toronto Area, practically every Jewish day school is dedicated to Hebrew language instruction. There are almost a half-dozen schools that are dedicated to teaching all Jewish subjects Ivrit b’Ivrit. This is a tremendous achievement and a powerful statement about the priorities of Toronto’s Jewish community.
But there is a difference between developing a working knowledge of Hebrew which Hazony advocates and being fluent which is what you really need if you are going to ride on the Israeli-civilization bus – and not sit in the back of it. But to do the latter well requires a lot more time and will inevitably come at the expense of other subjects, skills and experiences. (You can fill in the blank here on your own: ”More Hebrew immersion time, means less of _________ .”)
So perhaps day schools, the potential flagships of the Jewish community’s fleet of the future (if they could be accessible without destroying the Jewish middle class in the process), should stop enculturating North American Jews and make Israelis-in-absentia…? Wouldn’t David Hazony be proud of us then!
Sadly, day schools cannot do both nor should they. For starters, the last time I checked, North American day schools were located in North America. They should probably focus on teaching young Jews how to be Jewish in North America first – but I could be wrong about this one…
The challenges facing the viability of North American Judaism cannot be solved by learning Hebrew. (I wish it was that easy…) Similarly, the gap between North America and Israel cannot be surmounted by watching more Arutz HaYisraeli on cable.
The substantive issues that threaten viability or widen the gap have nothing to do with language barriers. (Some of them have to do with concrete barriers, but that is a post for another, less toxic time.) For Hazony to reduce everything to a hunch and a wagging finger is classical Zionism at its worst. I thought we were done with shlilat hagolah (negation of the Diaspora) with Yosef Haim Brenner and Micha Josef Berdyczewski – but I guess not. Khaval, David. Khaval me’od…
… a whole piece about how liberal Jewish day school numbers are “stuck in neutral” (while, cue ominous music, Orthodox numbers go up and up and up) and not ONE WORD about cost or tuition?!
Is this an early April Fools’ Joke or some Purim Torah at the tail end of Hannukah?