Teaching Judaism vs. Preaching Judaism

My second year of rabbinical school has come to a close, and as I reflect upon all my experiences, I can confidently say that I have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge since September. Aside from the academic classes, my involvement in the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellows program in particular was a formative learning experience for me. This past semester, my fellowship experience allowed me the unique opportunity to work as an adjunct faculty member (or teacher’s assistant) at the University of Cincinnati department of Judaic Studies. This educational setting, one that is generally less common for many rabbis, was ultimately a valuable experience.

As a future rabbi, I often envision what my personal career will be, and teaching at a public university is not the first thing that comes to mind. Being a congregational rabbi is an opportunity to be part of a larger Jewish community while interacting with individuals of all ages. One of the elements of working as a rabbi that influenced me to pursue this path is the opportunity to assist others in times of need and to work to inspire Jews to embrace their Judaism in a manner that is meaningful to them. Yet my fellowship this year proved to be quite different from my idea of my future rabbinate. My experience as a TA in an undergraduate academic setting undoubtedly opened my eyes to an alternative avenue through which a rabbi can serve as a teacher of Judaism. Because of my internship, I have learned what teaching Judaism from an objective standpoint to a diverse group of students’ requires. But for a rabbi working in a formal academic setting opposed to a pulpit rabbi, the former is not focused on teaching Jews, but on teaching about Judaism. For me, this notion proved to be most challenging.

It took time for me to learn how to look beyond the fact that my placement did not emulate the rabbinate I aspire to have. My experience required that I rethink the manner in which I delivered my lessons. A rabbi who works as an academic professor does not preach Judaism, but rather teaches Judaism. Most significantly I learned that working primarily as a scholar or an academic professor of Judaism is for some a sufficient means of integrating Jewish text and tradition, an inherently sacred subject, in a capacity that is commonly perceived as mundane—the formal setting of an academic institution. This year, in the classroom and in the field, I learned that in every educational setting it is best to propose an “enduring understanding,” a sentence or two that stands to encapsulate the overall message or primary take-away from any particular lesson. Thinking this way helped me to articulate the differences in teaching the same topic in different settings in terms of my students’ goals.

Therefore, as I reflect upon my entire experience as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow this year, I draw upon the words of a well-known contemporary singer/songwriter, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead for my own enduring understanding of the year: “Once in a while, you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look it right” (“Sugar Magnolia”). For me, this song lyric represents a desired outlook on life. For life is made from our experiences, and no matter if a particular is perceived as positive or negative, what my enduring understanding teaches me is that inherent within all experiences there is a valuable learning opportunity. Overall, through my experience teaching in the Department of Judaic Studies at the University of Cincinnati, I have reaffirmed my knowledge of introductory level Judaism. I have developed fundamental teaching skills, necessary for all rabbis. Lastly, my experience as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow has challenged me to step outside my comfort zone. This past year, through my experience in learning to teach, I have come to realize that I have learned most about myself.

Simon Stratford spent this year working as an adjunct faculty member/professor’s assistant at the University of Cincinnati Department of Judaic Studies.

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