On Rosh Hashanah morning, the Rabbi noticed little Adam staring up at the large plaque that hung in the foyer of the synagogue. It was covered with names, and small flags were mounted on either side.
The seven-year old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the Rabbi walked up, stood beside the boy.
Still focused on the plaque Adam asked. “Rabbi, what is this?” “Well, it’s a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service.”
Soberly, they stood together, staring at the large plaque. Little Adam’s voice was barely audible when he asked: “Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur service?”
The truth in this joke is that much of our “service” (hebrew: Avodah) relates to sacrifice, death and transferring to our innocent youth the guilt/cathartic baggage we share with pre-Israelite cults and which has been preserved in the JudioChristian tradition. This baggage is seriously over weight during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.
If you only go to temple two days a year you could hardly be surprised that the first book of the Bible children study, by tradition, is Leviticus (Greek: Λευιτικός, “relating to the Levites”), parts of which are also known as the Priestly Code and the Holiness Code.
Rabbi Assi said: Why do young children commence with [the Book of] ‘The Law of Priests, and not with [the Book of] Genesis? – Surely it is because young children are pure, and the sacrifices are pure; so let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure. (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3)
But as anyone who has experienced the whole scope of the Jewish calendar knows, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do not represent the mainstream of our tradition. By far the historical – experiential holidays of Sukkot, Shavuot, Purim and most of all Passover trump, or should trump the service – pietistic bend of the so-called High Holidays.
So too with education… The educational philosophy manifested by the four sons/children of the Passover Seder, their questions and sometimes snide comments remind us of what Jewish education is at its best. A noisy, rambunctious and irreverent endeavor in which each participant finds his/her own place and stakes his/her own position.. As the Good Book say:
Train up the child according to the tenor of his way, and when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6 Darby Bible Translation)
The vigorous, in-your-face debate of the Study Hall (Beit Midrash) of any traditional Yeshiva, where every point is debated, every premise questioned and every issue remains unresolved.. this is what is preserved at the Seder and is the bulwark of Jewish intellectual curiosity and vitality.
Just as the High Holidays have insipiently penetrated and monopolized the Jewish calendar, so too, a focus on sacrifice, service, ritual repetition (aka “continuity”) and blind-pure devotion to our beliefs, have sadly permeated Jewish education. With regard to an emphasis on Holocaust studies and the “They died in Service” mentality, it’s ironic (or is it?) that the word Holocaust comes from the Greek ὁλόκαυστος holókaustos: hólos, “whole” and kaustós, “burnt” and is ultimately a Leviticus term for a wholly burnt offering.
I’ll leave it for another blog to suggest that we cancel the High Holidays.. but for now, let’s focus on the crisis in the classroom regarding Jewish and Israel education in America and it’s derivation from what I shall call The Leviticus Educational Theory.
Back in 2007, two prominent sociologists Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman published a study named “Beyond Distancing,” which “found a consistent increase in alienation in each younger generation, with middle-aged Jews less attached to Israel than older Jews, and younger Jews less attached than middle-aged Jews. (See: The Jewish Daily Forward: Attachment to Israel Declining Among Young American Jews).
Last month (February 2011), Alex Pomson, senior researcher at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at Hebrew University presented his paper: A Sense of Distance through the Classroom Window at the annual North American Jewish Day School Conference. It was based on multiple interviews of Hebrew Day School students and created quite a stir….
Outsourcing The study “found that Israel education in day schools has come to strongly resemble the form and content of the Jewish education provided in supplementary or congregational schools.” In the first place, day school Israel education looks a great deal like many of the Bar Mitzva programs provided in congregational settings. As is well known, decades ago, initiation into Jewish majority status devolved from the family and the wider community to the congregational school, and came to focus—at least from the perspective of consumers—on preparation for a single, time-limited and spatially bounded, performance (Schoenfeld 1988). (cf “Service” ed) By analogy, over recent years, day schools have been assigned responsibility for cultivating knowledge, attitudes and behaviors in relation to Israel that were previously nurtured by a variety of community institutions. Today, moreover, this task is increasingly focused on preparation for a singular, similarly limited performance: advocacy for Israel during the few years that students spend on university campuses. …—there is a palpable lack of confidence (and perhaps interest) in their capacity to cultivate attachment to Israel in their children. Parents have subcontracted this task to schools.”
Part of the Leviticus Education Theory is included in the overall approach to institutionalize (read: outsource) Judaism to temples and professionals…..
Advocacy In recent years, Israel advocacy programs in day schools have flourished. The David Project, founded in 2002, … At least half-a-dozen other organizations promise outcomes such as ”to prepare Jewish teens for the anti-Israel sentiment they will face on campus…and to empower [them] with concrete skills, advocacy training and the ability to respond to anti-Israel rhetoric in an intelligent and informed manner”… I [Promson] suggest that the upsurge in such programs is not because activist pressure groups have captured the day school agenda through fear-mongering or special largesse; in my experience day school heads can be remarkably resistant to the importuning of single-issue lobbyists even when they come bearing gifts or wielding sticks. If the pressure to embrace this approach to Israel education comes from anywhere, it originates with parents, a constituency that few school heads can indefinitely resist.
The Leviticus Educational Approach not only deflects our responsibility as parents and takes the home and community out of the picture, but it also minimizes open debate and exposure to other more tempered and outright contrary opinions. Advocacy = Purity, and single mindedness and the simplification of complex problems may work when lobbying your congressman… it does not work in education.
Here are some examples of the interview responses Pomson based his study on:
For instance, “Mike” (a pseudonym), who attends an Orthodox school, said he felt a strong and unwavering commitment to Israel as “the foundation of my existence.” But he also acknowledged that he believed he has been “spoon fed propaganda” about the Jewish state by his teachers over the years.
“It’s too late for me,” he said wistfully, at the tender age of 16, in terms of changing his mind about Israeli policies. He and several other students who spoke almost robotically about their views sounded like their connection to Israel was a mile wide and a few inches deep.
“Naomi,” another student at an Orthodox school, said she was reluctant to talk about Israel and was not sure she would call herself a Zionist but plans to spend a post-high school year in the Jewish state.
(In general, the students were vague and uncomfortable when asked to define “Zionism,” and whether they considered themselves “Zionists.” Clearly, the terms have taken on negative baggage; one teacher at a conference session geared to high school educators noted that it was “painful to watch these day school students who can’t define one of most simple values of the Jewish community,” adding: “And I’m sure the students in our school would answer the same way.”)
If you’re interested in the subject of Jewish Education, I suggest that you read in-full the two articles in the Jewish Week (above) and if you’re really ambitious, you can read the original finding by Pomson.
Pomson makes recommendations to change the direction of Israel (and by extension, Jewish) education:
Experiential and Open Education When school leaders reflect on where and how they have greatest impact on students’ understanding of and relationship to Israel, the great majority point to programs and interventions that occur outside the classroom spaces…. these tend to be heavily skewed toward an ”experiential” rather than a ”cognitive” perspective. That is, they emphasize their relevance to the students’ lives and experiences rather than focus on abstract concepts or academic content. .. “The challenging conclusion,” he [Pomson] said at a plenary of the three-day conference, is that students are “suspicious” of what they hear from adults and “distance themselves from what they hear in the classroom.” And a frequent criticism is that the schools and teachers are “biased,” These findings indicate it may be more effective to present students with information on both sides of an issue — particularly one as complex as Israel — and let them form their own opinion rather than shielding them from criticism or being perceived as forcing on them the “correct” response.
The easy solution would be to focus on Israel trips and the Jewish Camp experience, but that risks duplicating the Leviticus-Institutionalization approach, where we substitute the organized trip or summer experience for the outsourced Temple/School.
Those of us who are heavily engaged in Israel advocacy.. and I am a card carrying member of AIPAC.. should be sure to leave our certitude at the door, when we leave congress and come home. If our children, our spouses, our families, and friends and …. our inner selves …. are to have any credibility as human beings and Jews, we need to open ourselves and embrace those amongst us who espouse differing opinions about Judaism and Israel, we need to reject the Leviticus purity of ideas model. We also need to reject the competing victimhood model where I argue, as did Cain and Abel that my sacrifice/victimhood is greater and more accepted to God, than yours.
Most of all.. we need to study; day and night and for our own intellectual growth and with our children, the issues; such as Judaism and Israel, which are meaningful to us. We need to constantly formulate and re-formulate our own opinions.
Only if we have the confidence in our Judaism and in Israel that permits questioning will those we love and our children inherit a similar confidence and love…. Only if we embrace the intellectual rigor and vitality of debate that has always characterized our people can we insure that our legacy survives and does not…. die in service.