The JCC Vision of Jewish Thriving Through Engagement with the World
The quest for meaning is nothing new; every generation has searched for it. What has changed is the source of meaning and its relationship to identity formation. Historically, the group was the source of personal identity and meaning was achieved by fulfilling your obligations to the group. Now, the individual is seen as primary and the group, secondary. The question of what carries meaning has shifted from one’s obligations to Judaism (or the Jewish people or Jewish history) to what Judaism can do for the individual. The challenge for Jewish educators is to help people find personal inspiration in the accumulated wisdom of the Jewish people while also offering compelling reasons for participating in Jewish communal life.
The JCC Movement’s Statement of Vision and Principles identifies the JCC as:
A primary destination for Jewish engagement, a locus of learning and celebration and a connector to Jewish life: a place where individuals and families can encounter Jewish ideas, principles, practices, and values; where they encounter Israel and explore the ideal of Jewish peoplehood in their lives; and a public square for convening important conversations both within the Jewish and among the broader community.
The JCC aspires to be a welcoming environment dedicated to Jewish living and learning. It does not separate living from learning: they are one and the same. It also does not specify the end product of any inquiry. Rather, it trusts the learning process to yield an outcome in its own time. The JCC does not prescribe a specific way of living Jewishly, nor does it privilege a particular domain of Jewish endeavor over another; rather, it helps individuals identify what being Jewish means to them and encourages them to act upon that meaning in their daily lives. The JCC’s educational vision is action oriented.
The educational philosopher David Hansen distinguishes between traditionalism, which seeks to preserve the past intact, and respect for tradition, which honors cultural history while recognizing nothing stays the same forever. Adherents to traditionalism react to change impulsively and without thought. Those with respect for tradition respond to change deliberately and with consideration. Traditionalism assumes we already know the answers. Respect for tradition means we are permitted to ask questions about those answers. Traditionalism assumes the expression of values remains fixed. Respect for tradition recognizes the relevance of deep, guiding values even while the expression of those values may change over time. Distinguishing between traditionalism and respect for tradition brings into focus one of the JCC’s goals for Jewish education, which is to help individuals find answers to the timeless questions: where do I come from and where am I going?
Navigating the tension between past and future and between old and new requires a home base that offers a sense of stability and security. A sense of rootedness provides a firm foundation for looking backward and forward. And as it was for avraham avinu (Abraham, our father), the journey away from home is external and spatial, as well as internal and psychological. It forces a constant examination of not only the things that are global, new, and different, but also those that are local, old, and familiar. It recognizes that one influences the other. The ability to respond, rather than react, to the past and the future is what Hansen calls a “cosmopolitan attitude,” which manifests in a reflective loyalty to the local and old, alongside a reflective openness to the global and new.
The JCC is what Hansen calls a canopy of cosmopolitanism, a sheltered environment dedicated to bringing the past and future, along with the local and the global, into meaningful dialogue within the present. The diversity within the group (which is a social manifestation of the diversity (read: inconsistency) within each of us becomes a strength to build upon. As individuals learn to appreciate the differences in beliefs and practices between them, they also learn how their distinctiveness binds them together. The group, not the JCC, is the source of this learning. The relationships between the individuals power that learning. And as a group, they can venture further afield than they could as individuals.
The JCC’s educational vision is shaped by its understanding of God’s command to Abraham, “Be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2). This imperative transcends ideological, theological, and behavioral divides, and can be expressed in many ways. But it does define a thriving life as one committed to and engaged with the larger world. So, when the JCC reinforces the stability of the home base, it does so to empower individuals to travel into the world and make a difference.
The JCC can only structure the living and learning activities it offers; it is always the individual who determines those activities’ meanings. So, the JCC can never predict the direction an individual will go. But it doesn’t need to. The JCC’s model for a thriving life derives from Ben Zoma’s cosmopolitan attitude: “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone” (Pirkei Avot 4:1).
Dr. David Ackerman is the director of the JCC Association’s Mandel Center for Jewish Education.