Our Pesach tradition, which demands that we imagine ourselves as if we had been slaves in Egypt, teaches us that we can learn about our present lives by taking an imaginary walk in the shoes of our ancestors. As I’ve been learning about Jewish education from Talmudic times through the Middle Ages, I’ve been trying to imagine myself as a Jewish educator based on this historical perspective.
The creative deviations and additions needed to be rooted in tradition so that the seder could be both relevant and fulfill the traditional role of a seder, telling the Exodus story. Creative liturgy is best when it is a combination of celebrating what has been inherited and addressing the tensions with our modern reality.
I thought teaching was going to be just like watching my teachers in the Beit Midrash. I would speak, my students would listen, and then they would study. The students did not listen. They would not sit still. They interrupted each other. They made fun of the gutturals in the Hebrew. They refused to make eye contact with me, preferring to stare at their laps, and their half-hidden phones, which I could not get them to put away. They would not even glance at my source sheets, and my slide show failed to entertain them. I left that day angry and dejected. Teaching was not for me, I decided.
I firmly believe in the power of studying Judaism, but I find it difficult to bring sacred text into a classroom that does not appear to be a sacred and holy place. I feel overwhelmingly blessed to take Jewish classes and to deepen my knowledge of Judaism, but sometimes I feel disappointed. I feel disappointed when the God I feel in the sanctuary does not match up with the God we speak about in class, or more often the God we neglect to speak about in class.
The training that American rabbinical students receive regarding Israel needs to change. Israel bond appeals and guided synagogue trips may remain part of the communal landscape in America, but they (especially the bond appeals) are less important than they once were. Instead, American and Israeli Jews now have a new kind of asset to offer each other: experience and knowledge regarding different kinds of Jewish communities and different ways of being Jewish.
Our brain drain will only get worse if we don’t nurture our high school learners and give them a taste of what excellent adult Jewish education can be like. These students aren’t kids any longer in an academic sense. They are learning at high levels in their secular schools, and they expect the same difficulty and quality from Jewish subjects. They want to start probing the depths of what it will mean for them to choose to continue being Jewish.