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My Idea: Bring Jewish Education into the World Students Inhabit

A pervasive pattern of cultural dissonance cuts across just about every type of liberal Jewish educational setting and program. In short, there is a deep divide between what educators teach students and what their families actually believe and do in “real life.”

Most liberal Jews strive to be what Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna describes as “simultaneously a part of and apart from” North America. But this reality is not reflected in most religious school curricula—leaving Jewish students ill equipped to straddle both Jewish and American cultures. The answer is not to attempt to consolidate or conflate these two worlds into one, for that only produces an artificial synthesis. The solution is a Jewish education built on honest dialogue about the real world students inhabit.

Too often, though, rather than responding to students’ seemingly rebellious pleas to “keep it real,” many Jewish educators become defensive and thereby inadvertently reinforce the dissonance. Many despairing Reform congregational educators and rabbis, for example, indicttheir families’ commitments to soccer, ballet, karate, and other activities that conflict with the religious school schedule to such a degree, you’d think a vicious drug addiction problem had afflicted their schools. And I heard one liberal Jewish day school head say this about Halloween: “Our school is a safe haven from the secular world. As best we can, we shelter and protect our kids from those forces, and create an island of safety from the secular world.” This school did not allow students to bring in candy or costumes or talk about what they did on Halloween night. And yet, almost all the students had gone trick-or-treating. Moreover, virtually every teacher in the school had celebrated Halloween as kids and taken their own children trick-or-treating. Liberal Jewish families clearly do not feel endangered by this popular North American ritual. Thus, when educators call for a safe haven—which reflects their own anxiety about families’ ability to navigate living in multiple cultures simultaneously—this only serves to strike a dissonant chord among the very families they seek to engage in Jewish life.

When Reform educators view Judaism as being in opposition to music lessons, sports, or Halloween and wall off children from supposed outside “threats,” they set up a cultural war that is neither productive nor winnable. Instead, religious school needs to be a place where students learn how to handle normal cultural dissonance. Otherwise, our youth may never know how to do so later in life, as college students and adults, in a fully integrated world absent of externally monitored Jewish boundaries.

Successful Jewish education requires that we face our survivalist anxieties and stop fearing that their every decision will either ensure or threaten Jewish continuity. Rather than measuring the effectiveness of Jewish education in outcomes such as Hillel affiliation and in-marriage, we would do better to treat each and every learning moment as an opportunity to embrace the dilemmas of contemporary American Jewish life. In that spirit, Jewish education can be a safe and playful laboratory to practice addressing the challenges of living as part of (at least) two cultures.

Surprisingly, there seem to be precious few examples of institutions willing to address this challenge head on. Among dozens of day schools and religious schools I have visited around the U.S., only one, for example, displayed Halloween books in the library in October. When I asked the librarian to explain her school’s policy surrounding the celebration of Halloween, she proudly took me around to the other side of the display table, where an array of Jewish books addressed the themes of Jewish goblins and spirits, such as golems or the mazikim (demons)mentioned in the Talmud. Here was one school willing to engage students in conversation about two traditions. In a sense, by juxtaposing them back-to-back, the school was unabashedly mirroring contemporary Jewish experience in North America.

It is time we begin to teach “biculturalism” consciously and confidently, rather than fearfully and fretfully. For preschoolers who are just beginning to represent the world symbolically, abstract education such as “What does it mean for you to be Jewish?” doesn’t work; you’ll get answers like “actually, I’m ticklish.” Instead, youngsters can learn to distinguish things they encounter in everyday life—like the range of lights, everything from Christmas tree lights to streetlights to flashlights to lights inside pumpkins to “Jewish lights,” such as those illuminated by Shabbat and Hanukkah candles.

As students enter primary grades, they might explore the similarities and differences between Halloween and Purim from historical, ethical, and/or culinary perspectives. In the best of worlds, they should be able to articulate each holiday’s rituals, narratives, and messages, and, by analyzing Halloween’s prominent role in our lives, better understand Purim’s significance to the Jewish people.

Heading into the intermediate grades and b’nai mitzvah, students are mature enough to develop their own sense of what it means to take on greater responsibility, both as a good person and as a Jew. These young adults might be asked to reflect on such questions as: “What is the issue I most struggle with as a Jew and as a member of the larger society?” Adults could join the conversation, discussing dilemmas they face and strategies they use to resolve or at least manage them.

And post-b’nai mitzvah teens could be asked to make decisions concerning navigating the public sphere as adults, such as “Will I wear a Star of David or other Jewish symbol in public, why or why not, and if yes, under what circumstances?”

The more we can help our students and families to face cultural dilemmas proudly and creatively, without the ultimate weight of Jewish continuity on their backs, the more they will be willing and able to create a vibrant Jewish life for themselves and the larger Jewish community. When we “come out” proudly as ambivalent Jews, confronting our doubts and contradictions while striving to become simultaneously “a part of and apart from” our American/Canadian cultures, we will actually reinforce Jewish continuity.

Rabbi Dr. Tali Zelkowicz is assistant professor of Jewish education at HUC-JIR and a member of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.