Meaning-Making in the K–7 Supplemental School Context

Rabbi Eve Rudin

Meaning-making is an inherently Jewish act. In addition to the enumerated physical creations stated in our creation text, one of God’s first creations was also the act of ascribing meaning to those very creations:

“When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good” (Gen. 1:1–4)1.

Through the power of words, God both created the world and deemed the meaning of the world as “good.” This set the stage for us as humans to engage in the act of ascribing meaning to our world. The search for meaning, however, is not intended to be an intellectual quest of lishma for its own sake because Judaism is a religion of action. The goal of meaning-making for a Jew, therefore, is the eventual completion of Jewish actions and obligations as we are taught in our daily Eilu Devarim prayer: “and the study of Torah leads to them all [Jewish obligations].” The endeavor of meaning-making in Jewish education therefore entails the end goal of creating and retaining lifelong Jewish participants and “act-ors.” As a director of a K–7 congregational school, my task is to communicate compelling Jewish messages that will have meaning for our learners with the end result of inspiring young people to continue living, being, and acting Jewish. The meaning of meaning, therefore, is core of what we do as Jewish educators. 

How do we achieve this? Think of the letter H. The first vertical line we draw is the content and message we produce and offer to our learners. The content must be compelling, engaging, and contemporary in both its message and delivery medium—no easy feat for today’s North American Jews. Because we are a religion of words, we, thankfully, have tremendous resources to draw upon in creating a captivating message. 

The second vertical line of the H represents our learners, our recipients. The drive to search for meaning is not just a Jewish trait but an innate human one. Young Ellie in Carl Sagan’s movie Contact asks her dad: “Dad, do you think there’s people on other planets?” Her father replies: “I don’t know, Sparks. But I guess I’d say if it is just us…seems like an awful waste of space.” While many of our learners most likely have this innate drive to search for meaning, there also needs to be a willingness to consider and adopt Judaism as one’s meaning-making system. The latest Pew study denotes that while many young people (older than today’s K–7 learners) are on spiritual quests, their affiliation and identification with organized religion is lower than in previous decades2. It is obvious that in order for one to engage in meaning-making, one needs intent to do so. This concept of intentionality is a Jewish one. We are instructed with regard to Yom Teruah—Rosh Hashanah, the day of Shofar sounding—that the real obligation is to hear the shofar (lishmoa kol shofar). In Rambam Hilchot Shofar 1:1, Maimonides explains that it is a biblical commandment to hear the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. How does one hear it? “One must have intent to hear it.” 

One of our challenges in K–7 Jewish education today is that our learners do not always come with intrinsic intent. We therefore often need to “pull in” the second vertical line towards the H. We do so completing the H horizontally through educators, facilitators, and role models who are engaging. It’s these guides who can pull in and inspire our learners so that they can hear the compelling Jewish messages and thereby complete the H. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that the teacher is the “text that students never forget…What we need more than anything else,” he wrote, “is not textbooks but text people. It is the personality of the teacher, which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget. The teacher…is the creator of the future of our people.”3 

How does meaning-making manifest in the work I do? 

Enabling the H—compelling and engaging Jewish meaning making for K–7 learners—requires a commitment to four strategies:

  1. Engage, train, and support compelling and knowledgeable Jewish educators, facilitators, and role models.
  2. Survey and get to know our learners as whole people, as well as their cultural references (movies, books, music, the news, etc.), so that meaningful connections can be made to their real lives.
  3. Commit to serious Jewish content; the broader one’s Jewish knowledge, the greater the ability to draw upon Jewish sources in the meaning-making process. Our learners can also sense and will likely reject mediocrity.
  4. Deliver the content in an engaging and experiential way. 

How do I know when my learners are experiencing it?

In the short term, there are a number of anecdotal methods of knowing that a meaning-making moment has occurred. A learner will clearly show excitement and enthusiasm and articulate that a connection has been made. In the medium term, educators can measure anticipated outcomes (discussion, skits, art, etc.) to evaluate and assess whether meaningful connections have been made. In the long term, articulate, enduring understandings, such as attitudes and behaviors, can be measured over time through the use of evaluation.

What are some lessons I have learned from my work (with practical implications for others)?

  1. Meet every learner where he or she is. This is sometimes easier said than done in the K–7 supplemental setting. At most, our older learners are with us four to five hours a week and there are often 12 to 14 learners in one group or class. Truly knowing each learner and meeting each where he or she is in such limited time is very challenging, but nonetheless should still be a goal and principle.
  2. Approach learners in a whole people way. The Jewish Education Project began to use this language a few years ago to teach the field that young people come to the synagogue as whole people. If they are with us in the afternoon, they have already had a whole day: they are part of a whole social network and a part of a family system. Approaching learners in a whole way means that we have more opportunity and chance of creating meaning in their lives as opposed to presenting only a compartmentalized Judaism.
  3. Recognize that teachers, facilitators, and role models are also learners. Rabbi Ron Klotz, the now-retired director of the URJ’s Goldman Union Camp Institute, taught me during my research on Reform Jewish camps that in many ways, the campers are at camp simply for the sake of the college-age staff to have a Jewish and leadership experience. Therefore, the time and effort to train and support the staff is the most important work. If the staff is part of an engaged, vibrant, and meaning-making Jewish community, then so will the K–7 learners (or campers). Such training and community support takes time, effort, and intentionality.
  4. Train and support the role models to be intentional. Educators, facilitators, and role models should be trained to “use their super powers for good” and harness their enthusiasm so that it is indeed contagious and used strategically. The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Cornerstone Fellowship, for example, harnesses the energy and positive power of third-year bunk counselors to leverage their knowledge and appeal as camp role models to deliver more Jewish moments and content in all areas of camp.
  5. Keep up with what’s popular or engage those who do. One needs to know the latest movies, books, games, fashions, videos, and music that our children—particularly middle school–aged children—are interested in. Nothing is worse in the K–7 Jewish meaning-making business than talking about Hannah Montana when she is SO 2009.
  6. Understand the trends taking place. We need to keep up with the latest demographic and attitudinal trends so that we understand our families and their children. 

I suppose my burning question is: At what point is there a risk of Jewish integrity and authenticity becoming compromised? Judaism cannot be all things to all people and therefore it should not be assumed that we have The Meaning to offer everyone. Whenever I am preparing a story for Shabbat tefillah or a devar Torah, I am keenly aware of whether I am engaging in the process of exegesis (the traditional exposition of a text), versus the process of eisegesis (interpreting a text by reading into it one’s own ideas). While it is not wrong to approach our texts and tradition with what is occurring in our modern world, Judaism should never be compromised. As stated above, this is why having educators with deep and broad Jewish knowledge is so important—because the repertoire of what to draw upon is greater. 

My other burning question is what many K–7 supplemental educators refer to as “burn out.” So many families come to supplemental Jewish education with baggage such as Jewish-guilt-based drop-off Judaism (“We are here because my parents want their grandchildren to have a bar or bat mitzvah.”) or negative memories of their own supplemental school experience (“I hated Hebrew school and you will hate it too; you have to go until your bar mitzvah and then you don’t ever have to go back.”). With so much working against supplemental Jewish education, at what point do we throw the towel in and just give up our much more challenging and loftier goals of producing engaging, positive and meaning-making Jewish education? 

How might research on this topic help in my work? What would I like to learn?

There is a great deal of research about children’s cognitive and moral development and some work done in the Jewish community on faith and spiritual development based upon James Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development. It would be interesting to learn more about which methods and approaches to meaning-making work at each stage of a child’s development so that we in the field can be more intentional with regard to the methodology and Jewish content utilized in the meaning-making process.

Rabbi Eve Rudin is the director of Education, Youth and Families at the Larchmont Temple in Westchester. Previously she served in a similar capacity at Park Avenue Synagogue, during which time she participated in the pilot cohort of the ReFrame initiative at The Davidson School. Rabbi Rudin served as the director of the Department of Camp Excellence and Advancement for the Foundation for Jewish Camp, as well as the director of the URJ Kutz Campus for Reform Jewish Teens and the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) for the Union for Reform Judaism. A product of the Reform Jewish movement, Rabbi Rudin graduated with a BA in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University. She was awarded a Wexner Graduate Fellowship for her rabbinic studies at HUC-JIR.

[1] New JPS Translation. 
[2] As summarized by Dr. Steven Windmueller in Just the Facts! Ten Key Indicators of American Jewish Behavior. EJewishPhilanthropy, May 13, 2015.  
[3] “Jewish Education” in The Insecurity of FreedomEssays on Human Existence, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1959.