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Teaching the Why?

I attended part of the International Institute for Secular Humanist Judaism’s Colloquium at Northwestern this past weekend. The theme of the Colloquium was “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage. Paul Golin, Associate Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, explained that when Jews came to America the question they had was how to be American. Then, the community got so comfortable as Americans that the question became how to be Jewish. Now, the question is [i]why[/i] be Jewish.

Those of us who work in Jewish education spend a lot of time thinking up the most creative, engaging programming, using the latest technology to teach children and families how to do Jewish things. We try to provide Jewish experiences that form memories of joy and togetherness around holiday celebrations, mitzvah days and shared Shabbat meals. But, are we missing the forest for the trees?

We may have fun baking challah and may feel good after volunteering in the soup kitchen. If we are lucky, we may help families see modern messages in ancient narratives. But are we passing on the greater meaning of the whole endeavor of Jewish living? Is meaning-making inherent? Can meaning be found if it’s not made explicit?

Is teaching someone to make challah or latkes enough? Once the person makes them, do they automatically feel the meaning behind cooking that food? Can you teach a feeling of being connected to past generations? Can you teach someone to internalize the idea that cooking with oil, for example, reminds us of miracles all around us? Is it enough to talk about miracles without discussing what it means to then sanctify the identification of those miracles in real ways? Does learning how to prepare latkes compel someone to make them each Hanukkah with and for friends and family? How do we even encourage someone to learn how to make them if we don’t explain [i]why[/i] to make them?

Is it possible to “teach” culture and meaning? One can explain the story or law or ethics behind the tradition or ritual, but if the student doesn’t feel personally connected to, personally excited by, personally committed to, personally engaged with, personally moved by Jewish living, the whole pursuit of Jewish education is lost and shallow, short-lived and easily forgotten.

I have spoken before about the need for Jewish literacy. One way people make meaning is by having a depth of knowledge about a subject. Ultimately, meaning-making happens when the person feels that doing this thing fills a void, creates an answer for, and helps them live good lives.

As Jewish educators, we may need to take a step back and not worry so much about having the most unusual art supplies to make the coolest crafts, but spend as much time thinking about how to present the Jewish ritual object or anything else in a compelling enough way that our children and parents see that utilizing Judaism brings ultimate meaning to their days.

Rabbi Ari Moffic

Rabbi Ari Moffic is the former director of the 18Doors Chicago Innovation Hub and is the founder of CoHere.