Mar 1, 2017
Robert Sherman, Chief Executive Officer

Educating in Challenging Times

Sad teacher

Open conflict abounds now in the political environment around issues we might have thought long settled or at least far down the road toward general consensus. Race relations, feminism, abortion rights, inclusion/gender, religious freedom, immigration, free press, health care, voter rights, foreign policy, separation of powers, even the nature and limits of our unique brand of democracy itself. We read and talk obsessively about these things with friends, spouses and partners. We interact on-line, at meal times, on street corners, in transit and anyplace where people gather in small or large groups. And we engage with and around our kids and other people’s kids.

What, however, is the role of the Jewish educator in all this? And what is the role of Jewish education?

What is our role when it comes to engaging students in discourse, inquiry and action? If we ignore or avoid tackling this challenge, we risk total irrelevance in the life of our community and the lives of our students. Is it possible or desirable to engage students with this content without taking a position? Can or should education be separated from action in the social and political spheres?

Should educators take the lead in the organizations where they work or should they follow other leadership? Is education a means to creating a more compassionate and just society; a more compassionate and just Jew? Few would argue against that proposition. Is it the role of education to teach children the wisdom of our tradition and how to apply it to their lives? Of course it is. Is it to help students build a moral compass? And is it to take a clear position on what is the true north on that compass? Is it to identify exactly where the compass should help you to go: the destination point? This is where it may get a bit stickier.

Is it right for educators to design learning experiences that lead students to prioritize one legitimate value above another legitimate one?  In our long evolving Jewish tradition, one surely can find a basis for taking any number of competing positions.

Judaism is clearly not neutral about how to view the stranger in our midst, about the centrality of maintaining human dignity, and about how to respond to injustice and suffering in the world around us. When, however, does self-preservation trump justice and compassion? When is it right to break the laws of the land?  Should you act in such a way that potentially threatens the wellbeing of the community? As one educator in our community said recently, “How do I talk to our kids about the arrest of their rabbi?”

Is it the purpose of education to seek to radically alter the status quo or to preserve it? And if it can be both, then when does one take precedence over another? Should Jewish education be seen as a mechanism for creating social and political change, as well as, for personal growth and development? Abraham Joshua Heschel reported the feeling of praying with one’s feet, should one be teaching with one’s feet? Should one be learning with one’s feet?

What a Jewish educator cannot do is ignore it. We must have opportunities to work through our own thoughts and feelings and to consider carefully how to help young people develop the habits of mind, heart and feet that allow them to navigate their way through the multitude of issues that are ever present in their lives at home, at school, and among peers, whether face-to-face or digitally. Educators must act as "living Torahs," models for how to navigate challenging and vexing situations because our students are watching us and learning from what we do and what we say. And finally, if what we learn doesn’t translate into the actions we take, then what is the point?

As Jewish educators it is our role to help children experience the wisdom of our tradition and to test how that wisdom fares against the challenges and opportunities that abide in our daily lives. For that to happen, educators must have the time and space to carefully think through these issues for themselves. We can’t just educate young people by the seats of our pants nor only from that part of our brains activated by deeply held bias and strong emotions. All of us in institutions that deliver Jewish education, or who serve the systems that do, need to be providing the opportunity for educators to learn and think together about how to approach the design of these educational experiences.

We are in an unusual moment in time when so many values informed issues are at play.  Silence is not a viable option and neither is inaction.  Remember, our students are watching us.

Robert Sherman is CEO of The Jewish Education Project.

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