Posted on March 23rd, 2010 No comments
From the time of its founding, Hebrew Union College has led the way in Jewish education in the United States. The founding of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education in 1969 signaled a new phase in the professionalization and professionalism of Jewish education. Today RHSOE graduates are to be found in synagogues, schools, camps, and organizations across the globe. In addition to training teachers and administrators to work in formal and informal Jewish settings, the school is also a hub of scholarly research about Jewish education. This week the school entered a new phase. With the dedication of the Sara S. Lee Chair of Jewish Education, the school of education has cemented another important foundation stone on which to build the future of Jewish education.
In a moving ceremony, Rabbi David Ellenson inaugurated the Sara S Lee Chair for an Emerging Scholar in Jewish Education at the Los Angeles Campus of HUC-JIR. In addition to recounting the history of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, Sara Lee’s role in it and her widely acknowledged impact on the entire field of Jewish education, David spoke about his own relationship with Sara as colleague and teacher. Sara shared her reflections about her work of the last 37 years in the field, passionately setting out her
vision of Jewish education and the powerful role it can play in the life of individuals and communities. Both David and Sara spoke about the first person to hold the chair, Rabbi Tali Hyman Zelkowicz, and her unique qualifications as an RHSOE alum and outstanding young scholar. Tali also shared words of gratitude and anticipation.
To watch the ceremony play the video below:
Posted on February 22nd, 2010 No comments
We all believe in the importance of Jewish education, but creating and maintaining experiencew, opportunities and institutions of Jewish learning is not always simple. This week, Rabbi Scott Aaron, Community Scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning of Greater Pittsburgh and a doctoral candidate in the Philosophy of Education at Loyola University Chicago, raises some questions about how much we know about Jewish learning and the reasons we need to know more.
“Given the importance of religious and ethnic identity and the specific concerns of the Jewish community, it is surprising how little systematic information exists about Jewish college students. Much of the extant data were gathered in the 1960s and early 1970s and lack contemporary relevance.”[i]
I was surprised by this point when I first came across it a few years ago as I began my doctoral studies in Jewish education and identity development. The Jewish community really had so little data on such an important segment of the community? My own area of interest is the 18-26 year olds, but as I expanded my research to look at data on Jewish education overall, I saw that there has indeed been a paucity of identity information before the 1990s. Much of what has been generated since then has been focused on pediatric education and Jewish identity. Moreover, much of what had been done involving Jewish identity (adult or child) was evaluating it from the perspective of sociology rather than education. Simply put, and with apologies to all of my sociologist colleagues for the generalization, what little was out there was mostly measuring what Jewish adults did or did not do, not what they did or did not know or believe. This has always perplexed me given the broad spectrum of credible data across the various fields of secular education that I was encountering as part of my studies. How could the most educated ethnic identity group in American history make such massive investments in Jewish education and identity development with so little reliable data to show for it? However, some recent perspectives from academics in the community have gone a long way to explaining this discrepancy for me. It all seems to boil down to a need for reflection.
- Academic Reflection – As Dr. Adam Gamoran pointed out in a recent webinar through the Berman Jewish Policy Archives of New York University (http://www.bjpa.org), the Jewish community is spending a lot of time seeking a cure for our communal education problems without actually doing valid measurement and diagnosis of them. Many of our studies and evaluations of Jewish identity are not truly objective experiments that result in clear and unbiased data and extrapolation. The problems related to this flaw are often rooted in the tension between deeply held personal and communal assumptions and truly objective evaluation, not to mention a sense of communal crisis needing to be assuaged. (Dr. Gamoran’s critique of the recent much-heralded Birthright Israel study – http://ir.brandeis.edu/handle/10192/23380 – is worth hearing if you want to listen to the webinar yourself.
- Theoretical Reflection – In a very interesting recent article in the Journal of Jewish Education[ii], four authors presented important ideas to elaborate on this problem. Two in particular struck me as powerful. First, Dr. Stuart Charme of Rutgers University observed that educational philosophies in the Jewish community could be metaphorically understood as a Drink-Your-Milk model.
Jewish identity is likened to the human body and Jewish education is likened to milk. What one consumes strengthens one’s being. The more “nutrition” i.e. Jewish education, the stronger the body i.e. Jewish self. The stronger the body, the less susceptible it is to threats like assimilation and intermarriage in adulthood. Stronger = more Jewish, weaker = less Jewish.
Charme points out that the community has tended to structure Jewish education on this binary philosophical model and conducted evaluative outcomes in this vein. The result, he points out, is that “[t]o a great extent, research on Jewish identity has been a byproduct of the communal concerns of a minority living in a pluralistic, open society where ethnic survival as a coherent group is not guaranteed”.
The problem with this byproduct is twofold. First, as Charme points out, it sets Jewish identity up as a goal, as something that can be reached and once achieved is assumed to be stable. Second, it does not easily allow for alternate measurements of success. To extend Charme’s metaphor, it negates the nutritional value of skim, 1%, Lactaid or soy milk, not to mention cheese, yogurt, etc, i.e. a multiplicity of dynamic contemporary Jewish experiences that may not easily fit in to a normative or traditional model of Jewish education.
3. Personal Reflection – Additionally, in the same article, Dr. Tali Hyman of HUC-JIR LA also makes the very cogent observation that almost all those who have studied Jewish education and identity in the last two decades are themselves Jews. Dr. Hyman correctly asks how well Jewish researchers of Jews filter out their own biases based on their own personal Jewish life experience and identity. Are they self-reflective enough to see any personal bias? Are we truly getting reliably objective data from our research efforts?
So where does this leave us? Now we know why we do not have enough reliable data, but knowing highlights for the need for that information. My own confusion at the lack of significant and reliable data that can be built upon to develop testable new theories for Jewish education and identity is explainable by the ideas offered by these three commentators. Their own reflective observations can assist all of us in better serving our community as both practitioners and students of education. I share with them the hope and belief that as the community continues its recent efforts to engage in extensive academic research in to Jewish education and identity, it will be able to rely on those findings to develop new and meaningful paradigms of Jewish education.
[i] Sales, A., & Saxe, L. (2006). Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus. Waltham: Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.
[ii] Charme, S., Horowitz, B., Kress, J., & Hyman, T. (2008). Jewish Identities in Action: An Exploration of Models, Metaphors, and Methods . Journal of Jewish Education , 78 (2), 115-143.
Posted on February 1st, 2010 No comments
What does Judaism offer as a vision of education? What does excellence in education look like? Is it possible to achieve excellence in education in the realm of supplemental schools? Day schools? Camps? These were some of the substantive questions be posed, last week, to a diverse group of Jewish educators by Ron Berger.
Berger, a veteran educator and the author of An Ethic of Excellence, believes that all children can achieve excellence in education. Moreover, he does not distinguish between excellence in academic achievement and excellence in character building and moral development. Indeed it is the integration of ethics and learning that Berger, himself not Jewish, sees as a model for educators of all religious backgrounds and institutional affiliations.
Berger’s vision of excellence comes from his years teaching in the small school in Shutesbury, MA. He taught children of all ages and abilities to strive towards excellence by employing a projects based approach that stressed individual contributions, critique and revision, and the creation of products that were of value in the world. Now working with Expeditionary Learning Schools Berger has brought this approach to school across the US, many of them with limited resources, and achieved amazing results both in terms of academics but also broader community engagement. On display were high quality educationally significant posters, books, calendars, field guides, trading cards, greeting cards and other final products made by children as young as 5 years old.
Some in the room drew a parallel between inner city schools who struggle with limited resources and synagogue schools, where commitment of students and parents as well as money is in short supply. Parents, for example, could be drawn in to donate skills with computers or design to create the means for producing calendars that a class learning about the holiday cycle might create. Such engagement would both involve parents and help add to the financial and classroom resources available to teachers.
Berger’s insistence that the final product of projects be of value to people in the community means that the students can see the importance of their contributions. Rabbi Shoshana King-Tornberg walked away from the workshop dreaming of having her students write a guide to the service at their temple. Not only would it help the children learn more about the customs and culture of their community, but the final product would be of great use in building a sense of openness to newcomers. Others were dreaming of famous Jews trading cards. Still others of Hebrew language books written, illustrated and produced by students in higher grades for those in the lower grades
Feedback is a key element of Berger’s philosophy. In order for work to be excellent, it needs to go through drafts, to receive critique not from adults but from peers. The process, which teaches children to give kind, specific, and helpful feedback is an opportunity to think about how to be in community with each other, a model if you will of responsible and effective tokhekha.
By the end of the afternoon, we were all inspired towards a vision of excellence that focused on the engagement of children and their ability to produce materials
The program was presented by HUC-JIR in conjunction with DeLeT, the BJE and the Union for Reform Judaism.
To get a sense of how the process works, I would recommend the following two YouTube videos of Berger, explaining his approach:
Posted on January 12th, 2010 2 comments
Ahead of next week’s celebration of Martin Luther King and his legacy, guest blogger Julia Philips Berger pushes us to reconsider how we think about and teach the history of civil rights. Julia has been working with the Jewish Women’s Archive to develop new approaches for teaching the history of civil rights. A graduate of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, Julia is an education consultant residing in Orlando, FL.
Today, when most Reform synagogues have a social action committee and when legal segregation is a thing of the past, it may be hard for us to understand how some American Jews could not support and participate in the Civil Rights Movement. Over the last seven months, as I’ve worked on a high school curriculum about Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement for the Jewish Women’s Archive, I have been examining this issue and many others that highlight the complexities of Civil Rights history. Part of what I’ve learned is that only when we are fortunate enough to hold a position of power and privilege can we support the fights of others. While many Northern Jews felt safe enough and powerful enough to help African Americans in the South, many Southerners did not. Equally important is the fact that many Northern Jews felt differently when the Civil Rights Movement came to the North. In their own communities, Northern Jews did not always support bussing to integrate schools or Affirmative Action to help African Americans enter college and new business fields. These events were more immediate and more threatening to Northern Jews. The lives of American Jews in the 1950s and 1960s were complicated, so are our lives today. If we want our young people to feel connected to Judaism and continue our legacy of social justice, we need to share with them a more nuanced history that resonates with them, not a nostalgic picture of larger than life heroes who always do the right thing and make the right choices.
As Reform Jews, we are proud of our legacy of social justice. The many Jews who participated in the pivotal events of the Civil Rights Movement are an example of this. In addition to the general Jewish participation and the work of individual Reform activists, there was official Reform involvement in this social movement. Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who escaped Nazi Germany, gave a speech at the March on Washington. Members of the CCAR and NFTY participated in this March as well, under banners proclaiming their Jewish affiliation. These are the people and events that we generally point to at this time of year or in our religious school classes. But the history of Jewish participation during the Civil Rights Movement is much more complex. And that complexity has much to teach us.
While we are proud of the large percentage of white civil rights activists who were Jewish, the actual percentage of Jews who participated in the Civil Rights Movement is relatively small and the majority of these lived in the North. Many Southern Jews did not actively support the Civil Rights Movement. It was not that they didn’t believe that segregation was wrong, but that they knew that actively supporting desegregation could be dangerous. It could mean the loss of jobs or customers and clients that they could ill afford. It could mean having crosses burned on their front lawns or the bombing of their temples. Northern Jews would eventually leave the South. Southern Jews needed to live within the white Southern community, and they had done so for years by keeping a low profile. The Civil Rights Movement was not low profile, and the actions of Northern Jews reflected upon Southern Jews, exposing them to the wrath of Southern whites.
Tensions also developed between Southern Jews and some Jewish organizations. For example, in 1956, a congregation in Mississippi wrote to the President of the UAHC expressing its feelings that segregation was neither a religious issue nor a Jewish issue, and asked the UAHC not to make statements about segregation which might be understood by others as being the views of all Jews.
As I read these documents, I was reminded of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which explains that we need to fulfill our basic needs like food, housing, and safety before we can aspire to ideals such as tolerance. As Jews, we often think of our people, in more or less homogenous ways, despite our experience to the contrary. A number of years ago when I was a congregational educator, I learned about a child in my religious school who, upon seeing the temple food chest full of soups, pastas, cereals, etc., wanted to know if she could bring home some of the food for her family. Her classmates and teacher were aghast and reminded her that this was where we brought food for those less fortunate than us. As her mother later told me, they were in want and truly needed the food. Sometimes, we forget that not all American Jews are middle or upper middle class.
This month, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, I hope we can have pride in the fact that our people could be found in the Civil Rights Movement. We should also feel gratitude that many of us today have the power and privilege to be able to help others, and the perception to remember that just as we don’t like it when non-Jews make simplistic statements that begin “all Jews…,” we too must remember that all Jews are not the same, and bring that varied tapestry into our teaching of the past.
[For more information about the JWA’s new Civil Rights Curriculum and their summer institute which will teach teachers how to use these materials, go to http://jwa.org/teach/profdev/institute10/ .]
Posted on November 9th, 2009 4 comments
We are fortunate this week to have a post which reflects on both the learning that our alumni are doing and provides important insights into how technology can be used in the congregation. Ira Wise RHSOE ’91 is one of two HUC-JIR alumni (the other is HUC-JIR’s own Director of Alumni Affairs Joy Wasserman) participating in a cross denominational fellowship program for Jewish educators. In this cross post, Ira writes of his experiences at a face to face gathering of the fellows and shares some wonderful insights and suggestions on how technology how can be used for advancing Jewish life.
So I am sitting in a room at the Brandeis Bardin Institute in Simi Valley California. The weather has been in the 80′s for two days. I am over the jet lag. I and 13 other Jewish educators are the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows – Leading Educators Online at our first f2f (face to face) retreat with the staff of the Lookstein Institute for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan.
The program goals are to:
- Identify, direct and empower Fellows to develop and lead online collaborative communities in their professional fields.
- Provide leading edge professional development to outstanding Jewish educators from formal (e.g. supplementary, congregational, and day schools) and informal Jewish education settings (e.g. camps, youth groups, community centers).
- Advance new ways of learning and working together to bring about qualitative changes in the way Jewish educators work with others as they learn.
- Guide Jewish education to the forefront of 21st century education.
What does that mean? We have had a few months of intense, threaded conversations in a Google Group about creating a Community of Practice (CoP), and spent much of the last 36 hours exploring how to become one. We have learned from one another about how we have used various Web 2.0 applications in our work as educators. And we have told stories.
This is the early stage of what promises to be an amazing journey into the Next Level. I will share as often as seems relevant. In the right hand column of this Blog I have added a section called Next Level 2.0. It is a list of Web 2.0 applications that might help all of us take Jewish Learning and our own professional growth to the next level. Most of the apps listed were suggested by the fellows, and we all thank Barry Gruber for compiling the first iteration of the list. The current version (as of this posting – it will grow) reflects that first compilation and places I have learned about this week in California.
I tried twitter a few months ago, noodling around trying to see what it might do. Yesterday, Esther Feldman from the Lookstein Center told us all to sign up and log in. Many already had been tweeting. My previous impression (and I said as much) of Twitter was that it was a slick way of having People Magazine open all the time. I remember Kevin Spacey Tweeting on the air while he was on Letterman. Ridiculous.
Then we all began tweeting among ourselves. During presentations. It seems a bit like passing notes. Rude even. But the content of the tweets actually enhanced the conversation once we got used to it. We were tweeting our thoughts while listening. Not everyone got a chance to speek aloud, but we all had an opportunity to express ourselves to one another about what was happening. And we were creating a record of the learning at the same time. I had twitter live on the left side of my screen and Word on the right for note taking.
We went a little viral. Lisa Colton of Darim Online follows the tweets of one of the fellows. So she began to follow our conversation. (You can do that because we were attaching a hashtag that identifies the conversation thread!) She began to comment with us and share the conversation with those who follow her. At the moment that is 561 people.
Ellen Dietrick, one of the fellows, is the director of the Synagogue Early Childhood Program at Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is way ahead of the curve on all of this stuff. She has put a netbook in every classroom. Her teachers take some time everyday to post a very brief (4 -5 sentence) update about the happenings in their room and a photo (they digital cameras, too) to the schools Blog on Blogger.
Only those who are invited may see the blog (sorry, I do not issue the invites) to protect the privacy of the children and their families. But the parents (and grandparents who might live far away) can get a glimpse into their child’s day and even ask their children better questions than “what did you learn/do in school today?” They can ask about the art project or the challah they baked! Every class posts each day. Wow.
And Twitter? Forget about it! Teachers will hand Ellen a note at random points in the day. A tweet can only be 140 characters, so it is very short. It says something specific about something wonderful that just happened. Ellen tweets it from a Twitter account that only the parents can follow (security again!). They might have their twitter feed tied to their phone or Blackberry. It might appear in a window on their iGoogle desktop or as an e-mail. The point is that they will get a nudge and a note moments after the event. I haven’t spoken to any of the parents in Charlottesville, but I bet they love it! Did I mention she does school registration and sign ups for activities online using Google Docs? And that’s only some of the work of one of the fellows.
So I have totally changed my mind about twitter. I don’t think anyone wants to hear what I am ordering for lunch. Bit it is a pretty cool way to have a brief conversation, share a resource or create a backchannel for making meaning of something we are experiencing.
My twitter name is @IraJWise. What’s yours?
This post originally appeared as a post in Ira’s personal blog Welcome to the Next Level.
Posted on November 4th, 2009 1 comment
This week Rabbi Judith Abrams PhD. takes a new look at a familiar text. A Talmudic scholar, Dr. Abrams is the founder of Maqom a program for spiritual searching and serious Talmud study. She teaches Torah in a variety of settings and is currently delving into the Yerushalmi. We are glad that she will be sharing her wisdom with our community.
One of the things I love about studying Talmud is that it’s like a kaleidoscope: take a look, shake it up, turn it around, take another look and you see a whole new picture.
We all know that there are 4 things that benefit you here and in the world to come:
1. honoring father and mother
2. doing deeds of kindness
3. bringing peace between people and
4. the study of Torah is equal to them all. (Mishnah Peah 1:1)
The Yerushalmi, in its gemara to this mishnah, shakes the kaleidoscope and show us the other side of this teaching, i.e., the four things that hurt you here and in the world to come:
3. inappropriate sexual relations
4. lashon hara is equal to them all. (Yerushalmi Peah 1:1, 8a1 in the Artscroll Elucidation)
Each of the four good things is paired with its photo-negative. The links are easy to see: Honoring ones parents includes honoring one’s divine parent, i.e., God. So idolatry is the anti-honoring parent deed. Deeds of kindness show we treasure life. Murder, of course, is the farthest from that that we can get. Peace between people depends on appropriate boundaries and inappropriate sexuality dismisses such boundaries as meaningfless. What I especially love is that gossip turns out to be the photo-negative of Torah study. It’s words that can do so much good or so much harm.
But here’s the real catch-22: according to the Bavli (Baba Batra 164b-165a), everyone gossips to some extent every single day. Unless you’re going to stay in a cave somewhere and never speak again, your going to at least do the “dust of lashon hara” everyday. Since you couldn’t live anywhere near a complete Jewish life in such isolation, there’s only one thing to do: add more Torah words to your life. In that context, Torah study isn’t just a good thing…it’s the one thing that tips the balance back into your favor, shoring up the imbalance that inevitably follows gossip.
So Torah study isn’t just good for you lishmah…it compensates for lashon hara.
- Practical: if you had to teach this concept to kids, how would you do it? If lashon hara are the feathers, would Torah be the vacuum or the leaf blower?
- Spiritual: How could you get yourself/your children/your community to think about this balance as they go through their day. I know some people use rubber bracelets to remind themselves of different causes. What are some other ways we could really put this into practice?
Posted on September 2nd, 2009 No comments
This week Rabbi Julie Pelc offers up some learning about the power of speech and silence. Her timely reflections are a good reminder to all of us at this busy time of year when we spend so much time thinking about what to say.
Rabbi Pelc recently began work as the Director of Jewish Student Life at Santa Monica College Hillel. She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism and the Executive Director of the National Organization of American Mohalim. Previously, she was the Assistant Director of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health.
This summer I was thinking a lot about a text I encountered from the Tikkunei Zohar.
“Some speak with their eyes, some with their hands, some with the shaking of their head, some with the movement of their body, and some with their feet” (Tikkunei Zohar, 70, 177b)
I like to teach this text to those who desire to become better listeners. I often use it with HUC students who are embarking on chaplaincy internships in hospitals and other healthcare settings. These students come face-to-face with the importance of a nuanced kind of listening almost immediately upon beginning their internships. They understand how much can be communicated by one who cannot physically speak and what it’s possible to learn about someone by watching the way in which they move their bodies.
But I think it’s a kind of listening we should all strive to practice. In our everyday lives, we rely so heavily on the spoken word for communication with our families and friends that we can easily miss the most important questions, exclamations, and cries.
Sometimes, though, it’s hard to listen for nonverbal cues this in the moment. We (understandably) are drawn to spoken language; we believe we are listening to others, but sometimes the words themselves can both compel and distract us from other kinds of meanings.
In an article published in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes about what he calls “The Naked Face”:
All of us, a thousand times a day, read faces. When someone says “I love you,” we look into that person’s eyes to judge his or her sincerity. When we meet someone new, we often pick up on subtle signals, so that, even though he or she may have talked in a normal and friendly manner, afterward we say, “I don’t think he liked me,” or “I don’t think she’s very happy”
This is, I think, what the Tikkunei Zohar is talking about. All of us communicate in countless different ways using so much more than just our words. Sometimes, if we don’t truly listen, the effects can be disappointing or frustrating. But sometimes the resulting effect can be much more disturbing.
In our professional lives, we can miss the point entirely if we ignore non-verbal communication. I once received an email from a former student asking me for a book recommendation about why bad things happen to good people. She told me she’d been raped on her college campus by a man she thought was her friend. She wrote to me of her struggle – months later – in trying to understand how God would allow something like this to happen to her. I wished that I lived in the same city and could have met with her in person. Even over email, though, I realized that a bibliography on theodicy was not her only request. What she really needed was for someone to listen to her lament, and, perhaps even more importantly, she needed to express her doubts, fears, anger, and confusion. Before hearing or absorbing the voices of others, the voice she needed most was her own.
I felt completely at a loss of how to respond to her request for a book suggestion. To deny her this request may have been understood as an additional dismissal. I wanted her to feel that I heard her. She had asked me, as her rabbi, for a book. I felt a sense of obligation to listen. But listening, in this situation, required a special kind of hearing – I had to listen underneath her words and try to intuit a question and a need just beyond the surface.
My book suggestion – at first – was a journal. I told her that I was there to talk with her as she worked through her feelings and that I could, in time, recommend books and articles about theodicy, too.
I still (years later) wonder what more I could have done for her had I been present to truly listen – in person – to her eyes, her hands, the shaking of her head, the movement of her body, and her feet.
Posted on July 15th, 2009 2 comments
This week we welcome Rabbi Tali Hyman, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Jewish Education and Director of Jewish Programming for Day School Leadership through Teaching (DeLeT) Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles as she shares her some of what she has learned about how we come to “own” Torah. Her observations provide a new way of thinking about the dispersion of Jews to the four corners of the earth.
“Yidn voynen in alle lander,” is the Yiddish phrase my grandmother always utters in amazement anytime she meets Jews pretty much anywhere other than the cities she’s lived in, and Israel. Literally translated, it means “Jews live in all lands.” Social-psychologically speaking, though, we might translate it as, “how the heck did Jews end up in this remote corner of the planet?!”
Indeed, this was the very phrase that echoed in my mind all last week while I was in Costa Rica, visiting with the large, tight-knit Ashkenazi family of my father-in-law to be. They left Poland before World War II. According to family legend, the first immigrants were planning to go to Columbia, but ran out of money and had to get off the boat sooner…in Costa Rica. They have now spent three generations there, and their children and grandchildren attend Jewish schools, learn Hebrew, travel to Israel quite regularly, become Bar and Bat Mitzvah, attend a stunning work architectural artistry that is their community’s synagogue, and many keep kosher in their homes. They also speak a native Costa Rican Spanish, cook arroz con frijoles, plantains, lots of local fish and eat a panoply of exotic fruit indigenous to that region which I, for one, had never seen or heard of before. Costa Rica, like Canada or the United States, has become home to the couple thousand Jews of Eastern European descent who now live in San Jose, Costa Rica. Jews do not merely live in all lands, they make many lands their homes: in their minds, in their taste buds, in their kishkehs, and in their hearts.
So I found myself caught in a curious irony upon returning home, with these musings percolating in my mind. The very next day I returned from Central America, in my home of Los Angeles, the second largest Jewish community in the U.S., and one of the largest in the world, I was teaching a course surveying the development of classical Jewish texts. I always begin the course with an exercise I call “Torah Baggage.” I bring in a bag filled with a few symbols that represent the possible feelings and attitudes Jews can bring to their relationship with the Jewish textual tradition, which is often confluent with their Jewish identities. I pull out a pair of glasses, to indicate “we all bring various lenses to make meaning – critical-historical, religious-faith-based, etc.” Then I haul out a huge Alkalay Hebrew-English dictionary to represent the language barrier that can make studying our tradition’s sources seem impenetrable for many. I even bring out an Air Canada barf bag which with my graduate students seem to resonate to the strongest of all! It represents the visceral reactions we can have to what biblical scholar Phyllis Trible has called “texts of terror.” Texts of rape, plunder, xenophobia, racism, baseless hatred, beating, plundering, drowning, stoning, excommunicating, and on and on the list goes. This symbol represents those texts that produce the feeling of wanting to literally or figuratively wretch. Then I invite students to add their own symbolic objects to the Torah Baggage. What’s in there for you, personally? Of the range of symbols shared, such as a bullet, a balloon, a key, a marshmallow, one item has stayed with me, in particular. One student, who has come to Jewish learning and teaching later in her life, said, “I would add a permission slip.” For her, this meant, “I don’t feel like I’m home in my own tradition. I’m wandering, visiting, auditing, but don’t really believe I own this heritage.”
Having just returned from the remote canopies of a tropical jungle where I met Jews who feel thoroughly enfranchised, I was struck by this paradox. Here was a bright young woman – who has been a J-date ad model! – in a city of hundreds of thousands of Jews, studying in a seminary, wondering if and how she fits in to this Jewish story and journey.
Yidn voynen in alle lander. But they may not always feel at home, like “spiritual locals,” even in those lands with the most Jews of all. For many reasons Jews can feel very comfortable living in America, but it doesn’t mean they feel at home in their Jewish identities. Slowly but gradually, our friend with the permission slip is learning to grant herself the perceived right to claim her tradition, with the support of her classmates and colleagues, and with each new encounter with every genre of Jewish literature. More and more I understand my work as a Jewish educational leader is to help Jews write their own permission slips, because no one can write those for us.
additional photos from: http://www.bnei-israel.org and http://www.willdonovan.com/iblog/2006/04/air-sickness-bag-virtual-museum.html