The Meaning of Meaning in Jewish Education

Fall 2015 Volume 2, Issue 3

“I want this learning experience to be meaningful” and “I want my learners to find meaning through Jewish practice” are two comments we hear a lot in the field of Jewish education. All educators must consider the role that meaning plays in their work with learners. The term is one that is often used in a variety of contexts in contemporary discourse about Jewish education and identity. However, it is a term that is loosely defined and often used differently among various people who invoke it. In this issue we look at the concept of “meaning”—how people use it, what it might denote, and what the implications of these ideas are for our work in Jewish education.

The articles in this issue of Gleanings are part of a larger collection that The Davidson School sourced from over 20 leaders in Jewish education as part of a conference convened in June 2015 at JTS around the term “meaning” with support from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. We also invite you to view the following keynote addresses:

The Philosophy of MeaningDr. Daniel Pekarsky

The Search for Meaning in JudaismRabbi Rachel Nussbaum

Articles from Fall 2015 Volume 2, Issue 3

The Search for Meaning on College Campuses

The Search for Meaning on College Campuses

Open Hillel, sexual misconduct, divestment—be it from fossil fuel companies or the contemporary state of Israel/Palestine—all join the list that includes, among other things I am sure, questions about race, ethnicity, gender identity, sex and sexuality, the search for purpose, meaning, justice, and profit that emerging adults currently face throughout their time on college campuses across the nation.

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Finding Meaning in Jewish Studies at College

Finding Meaning in Jewish Studies at College

At institutions of higher learning around the country, enrollment in the humanities is down, in some disciplines precipitously; Jewish studies has not been spared from this trend. Under the direction of Chair Noam Pianko, the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Washington (UW) sought to address declining enrollment by creating a new staff position: director of Student Engagement, a position that I am honored to hold. 

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Meaning-Making in the K–7 Supplemental School Context

Meaning-Making in the K–7 Supplemental School Context

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.

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The Sociology and Psychology of Meaning: a Mental Health Perspective

The Sociology and Psychology of Meaning: a Mental Health Perspective

I work as a mental health clinician (clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst) and as an educator who works with K–12 schools nationally and internationally around a range of pro-social educational, violence-prevention, and mental health–informed issues and goals. Here I will focus on the meaning of “meaning” from a clinical mental health perspective.

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A Conference on The Meaning of Meaning in Jewish Education, June 2015

A Conference on The Meaning of Meaning in Jewish Education, June 2015

Pondering the meaning of meaning in Jewish education is not easy. To do so, I will examine why I chose a particular text for my session at the conference, how I choose texts in general, and how I understand the meaning of meaning in Talmudic texts. I think it axiomatic that in life most people are looking for meaning and community. Studying great Jewish texts together with others is one way to find both. 

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What Is the Meaning of Meaning in Jewish Education?

What Is the Meaning of Meaning in Jewish Education?

My work in Jewish education focuses exclusively on teaching texts to students of all ages. Recently, at a presentation made to rabbinical students by a practitioner in the field of experiential education, the presenter remarked, “So often courses in experiential education are not taught experientially.” I liked the playfulness of that remark because it captured the notion for me that learning a text is a primary experience of Jewish learning and therefore should be taught experientially. That implies that the involvement with a text, one’s engagement with it along with the engagement between students of that text in havruta, or in a facilitated discussion, should involve an exchange of ideas and feelings that penetrate students deeply as they are learning. To appropriate a term coined by Professor Israel Sheffler, the learning of a text should evoke cognitive emotions. Ideas should be felt and experienced. 

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Exploring Jewish Meaning Through Authenticity, Lived Experience, and Reflective Practice

Exploring Jewish Meaning Through Authenticity, Lived Experience, and Reflective Practice

As we explore the meaning of meaning in Jewish education, I believe we will need to update the measures of success for living a meaningful Jewish life. Meaning for the next generation will be defined by the degree to which Judaism can speak to the challenges of the decades ahead. Meaningful Jewish life will need to answer what Judaism brings to bear on the issues of the day: poverty, war, prejudice, and gender barriers. Can I be gay and Jewish? Can I marry whom I like? Can I afford to be Jewish and poor? Meaning is answering the critical question: why does it matter if I am Jewish or not? 

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Meaning, Authenticity, and Recognition

Meaning, Authenticity, and Recognition

The meaning of meaning emerges out of the interaction of three crucially important concepts that I would like to outline here. They are meaning, authenticity, and recognition.

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