Why do you send your children to that afterschool Jewish studies program? Why do they go to Hebrew school? Or to those JCC programs? For American Jews, shelling out thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars a year to give their children a Jewish education or to have them participate in in the plethora of extracurricular activities with Jewish youth groups is simply tradition, like bagels and lox.
But what do you – and more importantly, your children – get from all this? Sure, it gives them a chance to meet other local Jewish kids, which is by no means a small thing. But isn’t learning about your heritage supposed to be more than a social gathering?
Learning that inspires
Unfortunately, Jewish studies are usually handled the way other subjects are, as a quantity of knowledge which needs to be conveyed from teacher to pupil. Sure, you might have a teacher who is more creative or resourceful in the means used to transfer that information, but inevitably it generally boils down to just the transfer of knowledge.
Making a good Jewish educator is more than just a matter of teaching details, dates, and data. Learning about Judaism is a choice, one made not only by parents but, as children get older, increasingly by the students themselves. Those teaching Jewish studies must be inspiring, armed with a relevant message that really touches on tradition rather than just paying lip service to it. All too many afterschool Jewish programs devolve into little more than an opportunity to socialize with other Jewish kids. Even when serious content is being taught, how often does it really make an impact on our children? How many of our Hebrew school lessons were truly memorable, and not just preparation for our Bar or Bat Mitzvah – and all the gifts we knew we’d receive?
Academic tour of Israel as part of lessons at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education, Hebrew University of Jerusalem Photo Credit: Melton Centre at Hebrew U
Teaching something different
Academia has already picked up on this deficiency within Jewish education in America. The Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem– the gold standard for Jewish education and teacher training – provides alternative approaches to Jewish Ed intended to inject some much needed vibrancy into American Jewish learning. Degree programs such as those offered by the Melton Centre instill innovation and leadership; important qualities for Jewish educators that have often been totally ignored.
More generally, this new brand of Jewish Ed studies at Hebrew U encourages educators to impart more than just information. Instead, they’re given the tools necessary to deliver to their students an uplifting message rooted in Jewish values and traditions yet directed to the issues young people have to confront today.
While change is always incremental, the work of the Melton Centre is an important first step in creating a new kind of Jewish learning that is engaging and meaningful. We can only hope that now that some of Melton’s degree programs are available in English for overseas students online, the change beginning among American Jewish educators will accelerate.