I was having a discussion with my boyfriend (yes, I finally got one) about how we both grew up in the same synagogue in Pomona. He attributes much of his Jewish learning to his experience at Temple Beth Israel. I, on the other hand, found that Jewish education has bothered me for over a decade. What I am about to say, without intent to offend, is strictly my own personal issue with mainstream Jewish/religious education as it presently stands.
My concern is with choice and personal exploration within the walls of different denominations. As our conversation unraveled, I found myself upset across the board with how rituals and laws are taught to children. Children usually are boxed into ideals that parents choose to expose them to, but adults are able to have higher cognitive thought and are able to challenge traditional ideologies presented by the different sects. I fully believe that Jewish education is subconsciously paired often, not always, with guilt. If you know X and understand X, but still continue to do X….
This concept translates into a common vernacular many of us have heard: “I’m not that Jewish” or “You’re a better Jew than I am.” I fully believe these comments are deeply rooted in how we are educated. “Choice” is no longer a word of empowerment, but a word that means there was a negotiation on how we can adapt the religious laws, connotatively suggesting that the “choice” is not “true Judaism.” Let’s agree that Judaism today, in any community, is not what it was 200 years ago.
Dare I suggest that dividing Jewish communities into labels of observance may actually hinder understanding Torah and the history of the Jewish people? I am not professing that I have the answer to rectify the situation. But by only giving one point of view, Jews do not learn about other Jewish communities and their practices.
Ignorance, or education that is small in scope, leads to a lack of choice. I also argue many of these issues come from Jewish communal infrastructure. Synagogues cannot run without membership; branding and ideology have to coincide with its congregants. It is essential that people invest in their Jewish communities, yet the value of different sects educating one another should be praised highly. Arguably, this conversation does not happen often enough within the broad Jewish community. I am not sure if it is fear or judgment, but valuing Jewish thought across all lines should still be viewed as Jewish education.
The two sects that paint a vivid picture of this issue are the Reform movement and the Orthodox or “observant” movement. Now, before you get your tallit in a knot, I deeply value both sects, as well as others not mentioned. I feel the dichotomy provides a clear example of my concerns. Again, not all religious institutions provide education the same way. Many rabbis do give what I would call a full-spectrum approach, but there are institutions that scaffold their approach, leaving out critical exploration of halacha (Jewish laws), or they give the full scope, but do not assure their students that curtailing the laws to what they feel is within their comfort zone is acceptable.
Education should be about providing multiple avenues of Judaism. With today’s rise in assimilation, education is a key factor in allowing people to take ownership of their Judaism, in their practice of the rituals and of their cultural observance. Being Jewish is about finding a path that brings us closer to G-d. I’d imagine that any steps we take are ones in the right direction.
Rachel Schiff is an English teacher who graduated from Cal State Fullerton. She was president of Hillel, a representative of the World Union of Jewish Students and a YLD intern. Currently, she is a Master’s degree student in American Studies with emphasis on Jews in America.