Learners Matter Most: The Rest Is Commentary

Dr. David Bryfman

Barry Holtz begins his precise and insightful article about the outcomes of Jewish education by stating, “Many people in today’s Jewish world might find it hard to believe that there was a time in which Jewish education was not high on the community’s list of funding priorities.”

Holtz has been a leading voice in Jewish education for several decades and has always maintained a deep-rooted commitment to Jewish literacy. By this measure, Jewish education is indeed in tremendous standing with arguably more Jews engaged in the study of traditional Jewish texts than at any other time in history. In the diaspora, Jewish day schools, traditional and progressive yeshivot, many adult-learning programs, academic Jewish studies, and online Jewish learning programs are filled with thousands of Jews studying Jewish texts on a regular basis. In Israel, there are also tens of thousands of Jews engaged in Jewish learning. Historically and in present times the bulk of this type of learner is what we now label as “Orthodox” or “ultra-Orthodox,” contributing at least numerically to the assertion that Jews have been and continue to be the People of the Book. However, it is my interpretation that Holtz’s articulation of the outcomes of Jewish education is not primarily directed at Orthodox Jews and this is where his core thesis begins to break down.

Alongside the surge in these formal Jewish learning institutions, the growth in informal, or experiential, Jewish learning in the last few decades has been even more dramatic. Established organizations, including Jewish youth groups, summer camps, and Hillels have grown in numbers. In addition to these traditional initiatives, we have also seen a plethora of Jewish experiences enter the Jewish educational space including Birthright Israel, PJ Library, Hazon, Moishe House, Chabad on Campus, Repair the World, and OneTable, which collectively are positively influencing the lives of tens of thousands of young Jews today. Although many of these experiences incorporate the study of Jewish texts, very few would argue that the study of Jewish text is the primary, or often even an essential, aspect of this category of Jewish education. Outcomes that are more action-oriented—including development of stronger moral behavior, the building of social networks, and the empowerment of learners to be activists—are far more prevalent outcomes in the world of experiential Jewish education than the creating of more literate Jews.

But despite their successes, these new organizations pose for Holtz and many other Jewish educators—especially for educators like myself, who for many years have insisted that the boundary between formal and informal Jewish education is blurry—a fundamental challenge. It is primarily because these forms of experiential Jewish learning, which are attracting extremely large numbers of Jewish learners with the support of some of the largest financial investments the Jewish world has ever seen, are actually not in line with Holtz’s primary assertion that, “Jewish education, like all education, is essentially in the knowledge and skills business.” Holtz is totally correct in asserting that Jewish education is front and center for many Jewish communities today—it’s just not necessarily the Jewish education outcomes that Holtz is actually advocating for in this article.

For many readers this would be a comfortable point at which to conclude this article. Such an ending would go something like this:

The Jewish world needs continued investment in both traditional Jewish learning and experiential Jewish education. Although both might have different, or perhaps overlapping, outcomes, all of these are essential in order to reach and have impact on as many different Jews as possible. In so doing, the Jewish people have a far greater likelihood of being vibrant now and in the future.

The problem with this conclusion is that in its desire to be inclusive and additive (we should continue to support this and also this), it is neither brave nor helpful given the time in which we currently live.

The conclusion that ought to be written goes something like this:

The Jewish world needs to realize that the world has changed considerably since most institutions of Jewish education were established. In order to have impact on the vast majority of Jews today, Jewish education must stop defaulting to literacy over values, texts over ethics, and the past over the present and future. For Jewish learning to be both meaningful and relevant it must empower Jews (and fellow travelers) to thrive—in their personal success and happiness, in being more socially connected to each other and their communities—and better equipped to make the world a better place.

Renowned educational professor, Joseph Schwab wrote about the four commonplaces of education—student, teacher, subject matter, and milieu (Schwab, 1973/1978). More often than not in Jewish educational circles, this message has been translated as educators needing to ensure that all four dimensions are equally taken into account when preparing educational experiences. While I could make the argument that all are essential or that at various stages of program development all four need to be addressed, I want to assert that at the end of the day (or at the end of time), the only commonplace that will really matter is the learner.

This is nothing new to adherents of progressive education, but it is something new to those educators who caveat learner-centered education with statements such as, “Yes, but if they don’t really learn something (i.e., our curriculum/knowledge), then it isn’t really education.”

This tilt toward the learner being the center of Jewish education is not an acquiescing to the egocentrism of millennials and Generation Z today. It is a fundamental acknowledgement that for Jewish education to be successful, it must be focused on making a positive difference in the lives of Jews today. This is foundationally different to Jewish education that has traditionally seen its purpose as making people more Jewish, allowing Jewish institutions to prosper, and making the Jewish community stronger.

Instead, the significant outcome that Jewish education and engagement should be tackling is that Jewish educational experiences enable people to thrive as human beings in the world today—as human beings, in their various communities, and in the world at large.

This is not the vision of Jewish education as the transmission of skills and knowledge delivered by an educator that Holtz describes. It is a new paradigm for what matters most in enduring Jewish education today. It includes the relationships we develop, the pride we inculcate, and the positive emotional onnections to being Jewish that we enhance. In the language of positive psychologists, Jewish education, if it is to be valuable to people today, must empower individuals to thrive and to flourish. Jewish wisdom has the inherent capacity to inform this new paradigm for Jewish education. Whether Jewish educators, leadership, and communities are willing to accept this new reality will largely impact the future of the Jewish people.

Dr. David Bryfman is the chief innovation officer at The Jewish Education Project. David completed his PhD in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU, focusing on the identity development of Jewish adolescents. He is also a graduate of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program. Prior to moving to New York, David worked in formal and informal Jewish educational institutions in Australia, Israel, and North America. He is also currently a Schusterman fellow and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.