Talking about God in Jewish Education

Steven Brown

Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School 

Steven Brown is a program officer at AVICHAI North America. He was dean of The Davidson School from 2003 to 2008.

I believe that for any intelligent Jew today, theology is indispensable. Many think it is not necessary, that they don’t need it. My view is: if you work in a Jewish classroom and are shaky about theology, how will you be able to teach it?

When I came to JTS in 1996 as director of the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education and assistant dean of the new William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, Neil Gillman, who was then chair of the Jewish Philosophy area at JTS, made me an offer I could not refuse. He bemoaned the fact that few people were doing any serious theological inquiry, teaching, or learning in any of our Jewish educational institutions. JTS focused on academics only, not on the applied theology needed by our students in the field. Few were seriously engaged in God talk or in understanding how we know what God wants of us, let alone grappling with more difficult issues such as theodicy and eschatology.

Neil Gillman’s idea was that we would expose our students to the core theological issues they would need to confront for themselves and as future leaders and educators. We would combine the theology material with pedagogical skills or content knowledge, so our students would be able to teach sophisticated concepts to learners of all ages. Together we created a course called Translating Jewish Theology into Educational Settings. After teaching it for one semester on campus, we tried it as an online course at JTS. Over eleven years we taught it, on campus and online, to hundreds of JTS students.

I say more about God in Jewish education in this video on YouTube.

Rabbi Steven Brown is a program officer at AVICHAI North America. He was dean of The Davidson School from 2003 to 2008. For many years he served as director of supplementary and day schools and a staff member and educational trainer at Ramah camps. He has authored many articles and books on Jewish school curricula and has a particular interest in teaching Jewish prayer and translating Jewish theology into varied educational settings. While at JTS he helped create the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) and the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks project. Rabbi Brown has a BA and BHL from the combined program of JTS and Columbia University; an MA and EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University; and an MHL and rabbinic ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.