Blogcast 1: Beyond Jewish Identity: Rethinking Jewish Education


June 15, 2014

Watch a week-long blogcast as it unfolds between funders, practitioners, and researchers! In partnership with the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University.


  • Marc Kramer, RAVSAK

  • Lee Moore, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah

  • Ari Kelman, Stanford University

  • Julie Roth, Center for Jewish Life – Hillel at Princeton University

  • Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, CASJE




Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
This week, CASJE, in partnership with the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, will be hosting a week-long conversation on the topic of Jewish Identity. You may want to listen to the podcast released by the Mandel Center from their recent conference on Jewish Identity.

Cast members: Welcome! Before we jump into the conversation, perhaps it would be helpful to figure out what Jewish Identity means; what's at stake? Why does it even matter to spend time figuring out what Jewish identity means or should mean?

Additionally, I am curious if you could share your thoughts on today's E-Jewish Philanthropy piece written in response to your piece, Jon, re: Jewish identity and Jewish education. Here is the article titled, 'Measuring Jewish Identity.'  Below is a table that they have created to measure Jewish Identity.

The Jewish Agency for Israel Impact Matrix

  Israel Jewish Heritage Jewish Community Jewish Peoplehood

Jon A Levisohn
I'm a philosopher of education by training, and one of the things that philosophers of education do is to ask questions about purposes. Other kinds of scholars ask those questions, too, but it's kind of our thing.

So how did I come to start thinking about the concept of "Jewish identity" in particular?  It started, actually, with a different (but, I think, related) topic, namely, assimilation. I was thinking in 2008 and 2009 about what "assimilation" actually means, and the ways that we use the term. I gave a talk which led to another talk which led eventually to an article. 

The punchline?  We should not be educating against assimilation. Instead, we should be educating for assimilation. That is, we should be educating young Jews to navigate their way in the world, drawing on the best of what they encounter (whether that is vegetarianism or feminism or Hegelianism or any of the other good stuff that may be found in contemporary culture) and assimilating those influences into their own Judaism. 

That article (my article about assimilation) included the following passage:

There may still be examples of those who reject their Jewish identities, or who acknowledge only biological connections to other Jews present or past. But however much this kind of assimilation was a reality in the past, in the contemporary West, this phenomenon is actually quite rare. Identity is no longer a zero-sum game. No one demands that one abandon one’s status and self-identification as a Jew in order to become a (non-Jewish, or non-ethnic) American… Again, identity is not a zero-sum game, and there is little reason to believe that their passions for chess or yoga or football or Thai food or reggae music or environmental activism are in any substantive sense the causes of the diminishment of their Jewish commitments.

So that, I think, is part of what is at issue here (although only part, and hopefully we'll have the opportunity to surface other issues).  We often treat identity as a zero-sum game.  We talk about strengthening Jewish identity (against something else), or nurturing Jewish identity (against something else).  But that's not how Jews live their lives. 

Anyway, the more that I started thinking and talking with colleagues about the concept of "Jewish identity," the more I discovered that others were also uneasy with how the Jewish community uses the term. 

Over to you, my esteemed castmates. Does my argument about zero-sum-game thinking resonate with you?  Or, you know, ignore that point and tell us why our topic is interesting to you in particular...

PS Sharon, thanks for pointing us towards the JAFI Impact Matrix. Very interesting.  I'll have to come back to that at some point later on in the conversation.

Julie Roth
My name is Rabbi Julie Roth and I have devoted my life's work to strengthening Jewish identity.  And yet, after 13 years as a Hillel professional and six years of rabbinical training, I am hard-pressed to define what I mean exactly.

That's not to say I don't have my own matrix to measure feelings, behavior, and knowledge in the high intensity educational fellowships I run at Princeton, drilled down, with the help of a professional consultant into concrete components that are measurable on a survey-money evaluation, because I do.  Rather, at the deepest level I struggle with the philosophical tension between pursuing Jewish identity for its own sake and cultivating Jewish identity so that individual Jews will live meaningful lives and contribute to building a more hopeful and justice-filled world.  While I don't see this as an either/or proposition, what we aim to accomplish precisely when we invest in the Jewish identity business impacts what we achieve.

The daughter of a Holocaust survivor in me is satisfied with Jewish identity as an end in of itself, but the campus rabbi in the trenches with millennials knows that meaning-making together with a sense of belonging must permeate Jewish identity for it to continue into the next generation.

Marc Kramer
My work takes me from the trenches of formal Jewish education up to 30,000 feet, and back down again.  For me, the question is much less about identity - a concept I find lacking meaning - and much more about Jewish literacy.  No scholar am I, I have a few short pieces that have appeared on the topic (check out the archives of eJewishPhilanthropy) in which I take a very tack than my friend and colleague, Jon, and worry that in the absence of strong core Jewish knowledge, all we are left with is "identity" which I worry is polite code for ignorance. 

Intro now complete, I'd like to nudge Jon a bit.  Jon, you state that you see value in Jews assimilating outside ideas into Judaism, and while there is much history under our belts that suggests we have done plenty of that before, I would suggest that perhaps we would be better to think about "acclimating" rather than "assimilating."  That is to say, that we empower - through knowledge - Jews to best acclimate to the world in which they live, positively influencing it where we can, accepting the realities that will come, and rejecting that which is counter to our essential beliefs. 

Thoughts? Rotten tomatoes?

Jon A Levisohn
Marc, I appreciate your point about the tendency for "identity" to be a rather empty term.  This is particularly true in an environment like ours (21st c. America) in which Jews are happy to be Jewish, happy to others to know that they're Jewish, happy to say that they're proud to be Jewish -- even if all of that means little in their day-to-day lives.

I'm always a little wary of the term "literacy," though, in part because it suggests (at least to my ear) a kind of rote knowledge.  I know that's not what you mean by it, but I would prefer to think about dispositions towards classical Jewish texts or towards the tradition more broadly.  Knowledge is part of that, to be sure.  You cannot have a sophisticated disposition without knowledge.  But the key is not the knowledge itself; the key is your stance, your way-of-being relative to these texts or to that knowledge.

Returning to your question, though, about assimilation:

I think it's more than just acclimating, or learning how to survive and even thrive in a particular environment. I think the key is an orientation towards the future. What do we want Judaism and the Jewish community to be?  Certainly, many of us have a strong commitment to the idea that the healthy Jewish community of the future will continue a set of traditions and practices from the past.  But my claim is that we do not (or should not) value those things simply because that's what's been done in the past.  We value them, if we do, because we believe that preserving them is good for our future.

Julie, does this link up to your contrast between Jewish identity as an "end in itself" and meaning-making that serves the needs of individuals today and tomorrow?

Lee Moore
Hello colleagues, and thank you for beginning this rich conversation. I come to the identity issue via my work with the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, a family foundation that views Judaism as a powerful, evolving wellspring of accumulating wisdom that can enrich lives and help create a better world.  From our vantage point, we have come to see 'identity' as indeed an empty concept - because, as Jon pointed out, it is so very vague. To answer your opening question Sharon (‘Why does it even matter to spend time figuring out what Jewish identity means or should mean?’) I would say it is not worth the time, and that Jewish organizations should always push toward more specific outcomes for focusing their strategies, even if they retain the notion of identity in their missions or visions.

Mark and Jon – I share your interest in literacy as a goal that starts to become more obtainable; and I share your discomfort, Jon, with the term itself. For the last year and a half, I have explored the notion of Jewish Fluency as an alternative (that has its own drawbacks, because it can imply ‘mastery’). What is the process or learning path by which people become fluent in Judaism, or at least ‘conversational’? What are the ‘sentences’ one must learn to speak/perform as they approach a Jewish way of living; what is the cultural ‘syntax’ to put those sentences together? I have found much value to think of the tradition in this way, as cultural transmission/acquisition indeed is so similar to language acquisition, and they both fundamentally frame how one makes sense of their reality.

I like the notion of dispositions, and definitely think that is a part of building one’s vocabulary. A framework we have been working on at Lippman Kanfer is Sensibilities –approaches to making meaning that emanate from Jewish narratives and behaviors. For a ‘starter list,’ see (2023 Note: website no longer available).

Lastly, by way of introduction, I want to note one mindset I employ – that Jewish wisdom is truly *valuable.* It may sound like an obvious starting point, but I wonder how much of the communal ‘hiding behind identity’ arises from a wide-spread questioning of what the value is to doing/being Jewish. I have noticed that when people value Jewish wisdom and what it has to offer them, they instinctively want to learn more and do more. This has been my own personal path, as someone who grew up in an interfaith family with little observance or formal learning -- and first hand experienced the transformational value of Jewish practice in my own life.

Marc Kramer
Who is it who has advanced the idea of Jewish citizenship skills?  Drawing a blank (a problem of age, not the hour) but hear echos of the idea in Lee's thoughtful reframing of the conversation. 

We here at RAVSAK also like to speak of Jewish lenses - ways of looking at the world through prisms that force us to "see" Jewishly.  Jewish lenses only work, though, if the eyes belong to someone who has Jewish knowledge, Jewish values, Jewish sensibilities and who prizes Jewish wisdom. 

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
Marc- you mentioned that we have had models in our past of acclimation.  I am wondering if Aristotelian thought in Maimonides' works, for example, was less assimilation/acculturation and more of a symbiosis with Spanish society?  What do you all think of a symbiosis as a way of framing our benefiting from while also contributing to the greater community? 

I am curious about your responses' to the language of fluency in lieu of literacy.  Can any of you think of examples where this has been attempted/accomplished?

Lastly- please do comment on the matrix above.   You may find Ruth Messinger's piece, Re-examining Jewish Peoplehood in the Age of Instagram, to be helpful in adding to this conversation.

Ari Kelman
Greetings from California, and thanks to the three-hour time difference, I'm a late-comer to the conversation, but an eager participant.

I'll throw my two cents in about the Matrix (which will get us back around to a conversation about fluency and literacy and lenses and so on, I promise). In short, I think it might be useless.

Galpern and Zeltzer write, "Identity is largely about self-understanding: who I think I am in the world, and the narrative that I have created about myself."  That's true, as far as I can tell, but then, how could anyone measure such a thing?  And why would you want to?

Most people, in the course of their every day lives -- those same people whose "self-understanding" represents the core of this thing called "identity" -- are not clamoring for measurements, matrices or scales for better understanding how they see themselves in their worlds.

The Matrix does not serve the needs of the individuals it purports to measure as much as it does the needs of the organizations whose programming attempts to serve those individuals.  If we are going to continue using the language of "identity," let's at least be clear about whose needs it serves.

Organizations like the Jewish Agency use the language of "identity" largely to refer to their own programmatic agendas, employing their constituencies as measures of their own successes (and failures).  There's a yawning gap, however, between my identity (as defined by Galpern and Zeltzer) and your ability to locate me in a matrix of your own creation designed to point not to my psychological stability but to the success of your programs.

In short, my identity is not your outcome.

Lee Moore
Sharon, an example of Fluency used as a framework: Hillel International is working on this, see here.

Jon A Levisohn
Lee, I'm glad you are thinking about "fluency," both literally and metaphorically.  Why?  Well, one reason is that language is a terrific example of usable knowledge.  We all know what it means to know a language -- and it's not about knowing vocabulary.  To borrow a philosophical distinction, it's know-how, not just know-that.

So language use is a practice, a complicated, socially constructed practice.  And, like other practices, when you get really good at it, it becomes part of you.  My spouse spent an immersive gap year in Spain after high school (although we're old enough that we didn't call it a "gap year" back then).  Her Spanish isn't as good as it once was, but she still thinks about herself as a Spanish speaker.  Not just someone who possesses knowledge.  We might even say that it's part of her identity!  (Along with lots of other things, of course.)

That, to me, is the most interesting thing about practices (linguistic and otherwise), the way that they sometimes become part of us. 

Jon A Levisohn
Ari, I want to think some more about the "yawning gap" that you are noticing. 

It's important, I think, to notice when the categories used by scholars or intellectuals (whether they are anthropologists visiting some hidden tribe or social scientifically trained program evaluators assessing the impact of a philanthropically funded intervention) do not match up with how the "natives" see themselves.  At the same time, isn't it often the case that technical experts develop language that the non-experts do not possess?  Isn't that their job?

So the very existence of a gap is not enough to tell us that something is wrong here.  But I do think you're onto something important.  Can you say a bit more about how you see the issue?

Julie Roth
I too like the metaphor of fluency much more than literacy for several reasons.  Fluency is emotive, expressive, and aspirational; literacy is mechanical and limited in scope.  When we are fluent in a language, we make connections, we integrate experiences and memories with words and allusions which is much more conducive to meaning-making. 

Jon, I agree with you that identity is not a zero-sum game. Increasingly in my work at Hillel, we look for opportunities to connect Jewish ideas and practices with other parts of students' human identities.  That's the power of our fellowship in Jewish biomedical ethics or inviting all of the residential college advisors who are on campus early for RCA training to Rosh Hashanah dinner even though only a small portion are Jewish. 

As for the inherent value of Jewish wisdom - Lee, I appreciate the need to stake that claim.  Yes, I agree there is value in Jewish wisdom (some, but not all) AND I think there's a need to tease out the places where Jewish ideas complement, contradict and are identical to ideas circulating in the broader global culture.

Jon A Levisohn
Finally, one more thought for the evening, about Dr. Galperin and Dr. Zubida Zeltzer.  I applaud their efforts to translate aspirational outcomes into concrete terms, and the categories are interesting ones.  But I didn't see a compelling argument, either conceptual or empirical, for why we ought to be imposing this matrix on our Jewish educational efforts.

And I use the term "imposing" intentionally.  Before we all sign onto a particular outcome matrix, we ought to be very careful about the unintended consequences of declaring this to be the way we evaluate our success in "moving people from one level of commitment and cognition to the next."

I am not at all endorsing a laissez-faire attitude to assessment.  As an educator, it's my responsibility to try and find out as much as I can about how my students are experiencing my class, how they're thinking about the material, and what they are and are not learning.  But I would never use this matrix in a course at Brandeis -- not because it's a secular university (although perhaps for that reason too), but because, by focusing on Jewish identity, it fails to capture all the important stuff that we spend our time talking about in class!  That, I think, is instructive.

Marc Kramer
I'll toss in a word of caution about "fluency," which is that I think it suggests mastery ("I am fluent in Hebrew" means "I speak the language without error, without conscious thought, and I do so without first translating to my native tongue.") in ways that might be intimidating.  While I like the term and idea for its proximity to "fluid" and the allusions Julie ascribes to it, it somehow does not get at (for me) the notion of literacy, which to my ear, connotes a kind of thoughtful sophistication that one applies in their daily life. 

Of course, I suspect that we are all saying very much the same thing.

Sharon, I love your question and to the degree that I actually understand it, yes - I agree. 

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
Some more fuel for the fire:

Where do you see the language of “Jewish identity” being used, and by whom, and for what purposes?  What concerns does that raise for you? What do you think brought about its popular usage in vision/mission statements and fundraising efforts?

In your own work, what trends have you observed about the ways that Jews are enacting their Jewish identities?  What implications does this have for Jewish education?

Here is an example from a piece in Tablet published today where the term "identity" is arguably thrown in: 

But a lot of identity formation happened there. I had my first kiss(es) at camp. I learned responsibility through nikayon (daily clean-up). I learned Torah and tefilah while sitting in the woods... I, who never identified as a girly-girl, sat still while other girls used a curling iron on my hair and dabbed Kissing Potion rollerball lip gloss on my lips... And in Jewish summer camp, Jewish values and identity-builders are integrated into everything. There are Israeli pop songs and Jewish folk dances, everyday objects are called by their Hebrew names, kids play fierce games of ga-ga (aka “Israeli dodge ball”) and discuss the week’s Torah portion.

What do you think of the usage of "identity" in this context? Appropriate? Misplaced? Other Reactions?

Ari Kelman
I'm not sure about "fluency" as the right language here (no pun intended).  That is: the linguistic register seems to suggest a difference between, say, my "fluency" in things Jewish and my fluency in other things (as a fan of music, as a teacher, as an American citizen, etc...).  That is, I understand what it is to be fluent in another language, and what that entails, but what does it mean to be "fluent" in Jewish?  And how would I know when I'm tapping my "Jewish fluency" and not my universal sense of justice (to use one example)?  If I can speak more than one language, I know when I'm doing one or the other, but culture is more fluid.

Maybe dialect would be more accurate?

Sarah Levy  Added by: Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
Jon started this conversation really talking about purposes. What is the point of Jewish education? If our problem with the term "Jewish identity" is that it is too vague and used differently by each person, I am not sure that "Jewish literacy" or "fluency" is any better, as evidenced by the back and forth conversation trying to differentiate the terms. Marc stated that perhaps everyone is saying the same thing, and that shows that perhaps Jewish literacy and Jewish fluency are just different terms for what some would call Jewish identity, with different connotations applied by each user (some including dispositions or skills or specific matrices). If the major problem with using the term Jewish identity is that we struggle to define it, neither of these terms seems any better. If the major problem is assessing our success in striving to impact Jewish identity, I am not sure either of these terms is any better or any easier to assess or measure unless we develop complex matrices or rubrics, but, as has been pointed out by both Jon and Ari, developing such a system has its own issues. Maybe, then, we should take a step back and think more generally about what we want to accomplish and why we are all in the field before trying to apply a term to it.

Marc Kramer
Let's pick up the ball Sarah Levy is tossing our way:  We seem to agree that "identity" as presented is not enough and that we have some semantic disagreement as to what we would call the more content, knowledge, value and behavior rich set of competencies and articulations we are seeking.  So where do we go from here?  What are we trying to accomplish vis-a-vis Jewish education?

Ari Kelman
Sarah and Marc. Thanks for the change of direction -- This is a marginally easier question that stems from a general sense that Jewish Education (as a project of sorts) has lost its way. Certainly, it seems that we're interested in something more than "identity."  Here, literacy seems useful as an analogue, though it, too, is not without its problems (remember ED Hirsch's Cultural Literacy and the Canon Wars of the 1990s, and you see some of the troubles in that conversation).

I'll punt this one to Jon, the philosopher. 

Jon A Levisohn
Not so fast.  The problems with "Jewish identity" are several, to my mind, not just its thinness.  Here's what I wrote in a blog post on this:

For some, the problem with talking about Jewish identity is that it’s hard to measure. For others, the problem is the very idea of a single, unified Jewish identity; actually, we all inhabit multiple identities, these days more than ever. Others notice that identity is sometimes used to divide those who are assumed to have “strong identities” from others who do not.

Others point out that the concept of Jewish identity has a history; it emerged at a particular moment in time, in the post-war era, among a certain set of assumptions about suburban bourgeois Jewishness. The language of identity, while ostensibly neutral, is actually a kind of implicit endorsement of a tragically anemic pattern of Jewish-but-not-too-Jewish commitments.

Still others are concerned about the zero-sum-game assumptions of Jewish identity discourse...

I count five different issues there.  The fourth is the problem of thinness.  The others are distinct problems.  And there may be more than just those.

But Ari punted to me, so let me try to catch that punt and run it back a few yards -- to make a little progress -- by suggesting that we should not be afraid of specificity.

What I have in mind is that we may be well served by thinking about specific outcomes rather than general ones.  "Strengthening Jewish identity" is a paradigmatically general outcome.  Likewise, "Jewish fluency" is a general outcome. But lots of terrific educational programs thrive on the basis of much more specific outcomes. 

Let me try an example. If I'm leading an Israeli dance troupe -- I'm going to pause for a second to let that sink in, the thought of Jon Levisohn leading a dance troupe -- I'm not thinking about Jewish identity.  I want the kids in the troupe to learn the dance, to perform well in the dance festival, to learn dance moves that are just a bit harder than things they've learned before (in the ZPD), to become a healthy and mutually supportive and smoothly functioning group, to have a positive experience that is challenging and sometimes just fun.

To bring it back to the language of languages, I might even say that I want to increase their fluency in the language of dance, or of folk dance, or of Israel dance in particular, and their ability to write new literature in that language.  But that's a specific language, not "Jewish fluency" in general.

Now, if I'm approaching a funder who is not herself a lover of Israeli dance, I may need to make a case about how Israeli dance serves Jewish identity.  Fine.  But is that what I'm teaching?  Nope.  I'm teaching dance.

A couple boys in my community just became Eagle Scouts. I was never a Boy Scout so I'm only dimly aware of how it works, but I know that you get to be an Eagle Scout on the basis of learning a lot of very specific things, earning a lot of badges that represent a lot of specific accomplishments.  To be sure, there's a broad theory behind it all about the development of character.  But they don't assess something called "character" or try to teach it directly.  They focus on the particulars.  There's some important wisdom there.

Max  Added by: Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
Tying into Sarah's question, what role does lineage play on a conversation about both identity and education.  Perhaps it's not politically correct but isn't the most basic value/goals of both education and identity to preserve Jewish lineage? Can there be Jewish Identity without Jewish Lineage?

Jon Woocher  Added by: Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
Great conversation, and I think it has arrived at the critical question:  can we identify some set of reasonably specific outcomes that we would like to see emanate from our Jewish educational efforts -- and can we also figure out how to assess whether we're succeeding in fostering these?  As I understand it, this is exactly the effort that is now being proposed in the arena of teen education and engagement under the leadership of the Jewish Education Project as part of the major cross-communal initiative spearheaded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.  I fully agree that terms like "Jewish identity," "Jewish literacy," and "Jewish fluency" are imperfect shorthands, which, when elaborated, turn out to be vague, partial, and ultimately unsatisfactory.  In the end, I think we will need to do the hard work of deliberating potential outcomes point by point and seeing where there is broad consensus and where we will agree to disagree.  It may be possible to come up with some general summary statements.  E.g., at JESNA, we described our goal as helping to "build a community of lifelong Jewish learners who use their learning to live more purposeful, fulfilling, and responsible Jewish lives."  This at least has the virtue of yielding several measurable-in-principle outcomes:  Do the learners keep learning?  Do they use their learning in identifiable ways that connect to larger life purposes?  Do they find that their learning and the use thereof makes their lives more fulfilling in specific ways?  I don't cite this as a model -- it's limitations are evident.  But, it does seem to me that we would be better off at this point setting aside the terms identity, literacy, and fluency (and other similar ones) and focusing on the specifics of what we hope to see (and hear) and how we can know if we're seeing it. And, when I say we, I'm mindful that this can't just be what educators (or funders) want.  Ari's point is critical: we need to be asking what Jewish learners consider "success" from their standpoint.

I do think (not so surprising, since I work for the foundation) that the language of Jewish sensibilities may offer us an interesting and useful point of entry into the discussion about specific outcomes.  Personally, I'm only secondarily interested in the categories our colleagues at the Jewish Agency use in their matrix -- they're all about how Jews relate to "Jewishness" and its various manifestations.  I'm more interested in how we employ Jewish ideas, values, emotional dispositions, and behaviors to live better lives and make a better world and the many different ways we might do that.  But, that's my shtick.  Most important for me is that the conversation get more specific so that we can find out where we agree and disagree, where we're being effective and where we're not.  If we then want to call that "Jewish identity," OK.  But, then, at least we will know what we're talking about.

And to conclude with a shameless plug - I wrote about some of this in the latest issue of HaYidion, the journal published by my esteemed colleague Marc Kramer's excellent organization, RAVSAK.

Jon A Levisohn
Max, a member of our audience, raised a question about Jewish lineage.  I'm not sure exactly what he means by "lineage" but, given his use of the phrase "preserve Jewish lineage," I'm going to guess that he's asking about what others would call "continuity." 

In other words, isn't the goal of Jewish education to perpetuate the Jewish community, to ensure (or at least maximize the likelihood) that there will be Jews in the future -- not just the short-term future, when those of us currently alive will benefit from a strong and healthy community, but in the long-term future as well?

The response to that question is another question: continuity for what?  Why is the long-term continuity of the Jewish community a good thing?

I think there are four ways to approach that question.  First, you might want there to be Jews in the world because you think that Jews have or Judaism has something to contribute to the world.  You might even have some specific ideas of what that potential or actual contribution is.  (Notice, however, that you then might find yourself wondering why you care about that contribution.  In other words, why do you care about the continuity or health or vitality of the world in general?)

Second, you might think that there's something particularly valuable or healthy or good about Judaism, that being Jewish is a good way to live, and you want others to have that experience.

Third, you might have a belief about what God wants in the world, or a belief about how God wants the world to be.  If you have that belief, then you may feel responsible to work towards that particular outcome.  And if that belief includes the idea that there ought to be Jews or Judaism in the world, then you would naturally feel a responsibility for promoting Jewish continuity.

Then there's a fourth approach, which is to say to yourself, I don't know exactly why it's important to me that there should be Jews in the world, why this particular ethnic/religious community should continue to exist long after I die -- but it's my family, and I care about it, and there's something fundamentally human about wanting (or hoping) for that continuity. 

But here's the thing.  When we say that, I don't believe that we only care about continuity.  I think what we're actually committed not just to the existence of Jews and Judaism in the long-term future, but to a particular kind of Judaism and a particular kind of Jewish community. 

In other words, "Jewish continuity" is often used -- like "Jewish identity" -- in order to avoid articulating the things we care about.  But that's precisely what we need to do.

So I think Jon Woocher and I are in agreement here.

Lee Moore
... and I see the notification that someone JUST posted (but can't see what it is), so apologies that this post does not directly address whatever they said:

I notice we've gotten a bit quiet when facing the question of what exactly these more specific targets may be :-). Of course, it will vary according the context. I agree with you, Julie, that it is a good starting point - especially in our universalist milieu - to articulate 'places where Jewish ideas complement, contradict and are identical to ideas circulating in the broader global culture.'

I want to explain a bit more of what Jon meant by the 'language of sensibilities' as one option for being more specific. I've spent some time - with help from others - articulating some specific cultural memes that are undoubtedly Jewish and can answer the question, 'What does it mean to be Jewish?.'

Each of these sensibilities is not just an idea, but rather an *approach* to life that can help people make choices and craft a life of meaning. Manifestations of them cut across the cognitive, affective and behavioral. An example would be Elu v'Elu / 'These and Those.' Again, not just as an idea, but as a way of thinking and behaving -- a mindset -- that embraces multiple viewpoints, knows that both you and I can be right, that often issues are complex and there is not one easy answer.

What if we asked every Hillel/BRI/Youth group participant what it means to be Jewish, and they quickly answered - oh, of course Elu v'Elu. Or Teshuvah - take responsibility for your actions, and change is always possible. Or Lech Lecha - life is a journey, not a destination. Or Simcha - may being joyful a practice.

I'm curious what folks think of this direction as a way to get more specific toward outcomes.

Ari Kelman
Lee (and Jon W.): I can't help but think about Susan Sontag and her "Notes on 'Camp'" when I hear the word "sensibility."  In that essay, Sontag offers some great insight into the logic of the aesthetics of Camp, which she calls a "sensibility." 

"A sensibility," she writes, "is almost, but not quite, ineffable. Any sensibility which can be crammed into the mold of a system, or handled with the rough tools of proof, is no longer a sensibility at all. It has hardened into an idea . . . "

The trick with "Jewish sensibility," has to be approaching things Jewish without allowing them to harden.  But calling them "Jewish" does some hardening work, I fear.  Repentance has a long history in other communities and other faiths, and one can buy the language of "the destination is the journey" emblazoned on coffee mugs and posters at tchotchke shops the world over.  It is possible to hold those beliefs and to hold them earnestly without connecting them to Jewishness (as a sensibility or otherwise).  Calling them "Jewish" particularlizes sentiments that seem or sound "universal" (of course, the very idea of the "universal" is, itself, a particular manifestation of enlightenment thought). And this returns us to Sontag who carefully offers (in note 51) a qualifier: "Every sensibility is self-serving to the group that promotes it," a claim that she supports by citing Jewish liberalism as "a gesture of self-legitimization."

Sensibilities work on behalf of groups. Claiming "Elu v'Elu" pretends (much in the way that "universalism" itself does) that Jewishness can be all things to all people, and I don't think it can be -- at least not in a way that is consistent with Sontag's definition of "sensibility."

We can go with sensibility or any other number of synonyms or like terms:  dispositions, attitudes, lenses, postures, perspectives, and yes, even identities.  But I fear that in the attempt to fill the terminological void, we're going to contribute to the hardening that such terms seem to regularly reinforce.

I realize I'm not being terribly productive here.  I have no substitute term to suggest, but that's my point.

joel  Added by: Lee Moore
Identity is always the wrong question. Live-ability is the real question. Judaism survives on behavior not attitude.

We need to talk about what one does as a Jew. I know that doesn't make things easier, but we need to talk about a vocabulary of behaviors that (1) allow for self-actualization, (2) contribute to the survivable of the Jewish people and (3) help to improve the world. Those are the categories that interest me.

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
Just to switch it up... Do different conceptions of Jewish Identity break down along denominational lines? How so? Why does or doesn't this matter?

I wonder in our discussion about identity/fluency/literacy... Would it make sense to create baselines for each denomination with some allowance for variability?  What would we lose by doing this?

Marc Kramer
Joel -  I really like where you are going... please say more! 

Sharon, I'm somewhat disinclined to use denominationalism as a filter of some sort - my sense is that denomination describes synagogue types and not necessarily the behaviors, beliefs and attitudes of the people who attend them. How else could you break this out?

Jon A Levisohn
I'm with Marc on this one. Denominationalism is still important, in a variety of ways. But given the decline of ideology in general (in Jewish life as well as the West overall), there's abundant and deep diversity within denominations that seems more important than the divisions between them. 

Here's an example. There are, within each Jewish denomination, some folks who lean more towards what is sometimes called "spirituality," towards Hasidism or neo-Hasidism or Kabbalah or neo-Kabbalah.  They share a kind of language or a set of understandings, and a set of values and priorities, whether they affiliate with an Orthodox synagogue or a Reconstructionist one or none at all.

Conversely, there are, within each Jewish denomination, some folks who lean more towards historical and textual inquiry, who happily read scholarly texts during davening (if they even go), who find meaning in what others might consider to be the driest, dustiest tomes.  These folks also share a set of understandings, and a set of values, whether they affiliate with an Orthodox synagogue or a Reconstructionist one, or none at all.

The great American philosopher William James, in his classic text Varieties of Religious Experience, talked about diverse religious "temperaments."  That seems relevant here.

This is just part of why it's so hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all educational framework.  You might be in the first group, and I might be in the second group.  Alternatively, perhaps my eldest child seems to be in the first group, and my second child seems to be more naturally inclined towards the second group.  And of course, this issue -- let's call it "spirituality versus intellect," although of course that really doesn't do it justice -- is just one of any number of different issues or topics or practices or values that make up the tapestry of Jewish culture and religion.

So I guess this post is actually circling back to Ari's response to Lee.  I'm struck by his use of the term "hardening," and his warning about it.  To be sure, we need categories, we need language, we need structures and plans.  But we also need fluidity and openness and a recognition of deep diversity.

And that thought leads me, in turn, to Franz Rosenzweig's famous speech, on the opening of a new institute for adult Jewish learning in 1920.  (I wrote about this several years ago; I'm plagiarizing from my own article.)  Rosenzweig proposes that the educator, the designer of educational environments, should approach her task with extreme humility; all she can provide is "time" and "space" in which to speak.  "This is all that can be 'organized' in advance, and it is very little, next to nothing." 

Why is he so adamantly opposed to everything that we would consider to be essential to good pedagogic practice, all the planning and backwards mapping and design thinking and visioning and theory-of-changing?

"What is intended to be of limited scope can be carried out according to a limited, clearly outlined plan -- it can be 'organized.'"  There's that word again, "organized," and again, he puts it in scare quotes.  Getting organized is fine for some purposes.  If you want to go shopping, make a list.  If you want to bake a cake, follow a recipe.  Those plans are fine, because the scope of the activity is limited.

"The unlimited," he continues, "cannot be attained through organization."  If we want real innovation, real insight, real connection, well, those things cannot be manufactured on command.  They don't follow recipes.  We can set up the conditions but, at a certain point, it's out of our hands. 

He then concludes the passage: "The highest things cannot be planned; for them, readiness is everything."

Readiness. Now, readiness is a disposition, a way of being in the world.  And it might even be possible to teach it -- although not in a "readiness class" or a "readiness curriculum."  But it's not a particularly Jewish disposition.  Jews have no claim to being more ready than other people, nor does Judaism promote this kind of fundamental, existential readiness more than other religious-intellectual traditions.

So if we try to cultivate the kind of readiness that Rosenzweig is talking about, it's surely not because we are promoting a certain kind of Jewish identity. 

Rosenweig's "readiness," it seems to me, is the opposite of Ari's "hardening."  When we think and talk and write about outcomes in Jewish education, we want to do so in ways that enliven the classrooms and bunks and trips and rides and study groups where that education happens, not deaden them.  We want to enrich them and make them more vibrant and creative, not more efficiently goal oriented.  We want them to be organized but not 'organized.'  We want to create locations for the unlimited.

Julie Roth
Jon Woocher: Three years ago, my educational outcomes were all about relevance, values, attitudes, insights. Now I am thinking much more about making Jewish friends and learning things that change the way you live.

The educational outcome I seek from Jewish education is the ability to live life as a sacred gift - with purpose, gratitude, and joy.  And I believe that the Jewish tradition offers a road map for how to do that.

Marc Kramer
Julie: I am not sure I can fully articulate why, but I am having something of an itchy reaction to your post-back to Jon W.  Whereas I am drawn to your idea of seeing life as a sacred gift and finding therein purpose, gratitude and joy (all good stuff, no?), making this outlook the desired outcome of Jewish education feels hollow.  I am certain that you intend something really rich here - it just doesn't work for me. 

I'll follow Jon L's example and also self-plagiarize.  Culling from a panel presentation at a Tal Am symposium a few months back, I tried to get at Jewish educational outcomes in the following way:

Wouldn't it be great if through Jewish educational experiences kids would know...

* ...that Jewish identity and pride can be preserved only in community (real or virtual) which nurtures core values and shared vision.

*... that Judaism will always respond to the larger culture and the forces that it can exert. If Jewish identity can succeed, then we must become the leaders to the larger community as well. Success comes when the larger culture responds to our initiatives. We have done so in the past, and surely we can do it again.

* ...the immutable, inescapable, irrefutable (and irresistible) reality of being a Text people – of living in our books

*... the enduring power of ritual and that thrill that can accompany it

*... a belief in the power of human initiative premised on our faith in a universe structured by moral laws.

*... a notion of peoplehood- that the Jewish people have a history and religious tradition that do in fact connect the Jew in America to the Jew in Uruguay to the Jew in Poland.

*... that the Hebrew language is the unique language of the Jews with which we access the sacred text that are the unique contribution of the Jews over time.

*...Shabbes – idea of unplugging and resting; that life isn't a constant whirlwind of activity but that even G-d required rest and mindfulness.

*...that there are core Jewish actions and Jewish beliefs (ritual) that may have universal meanings and offer broader messages, but they uniquely reflect and come from the history and traditions of the Jewish people.

*... that the Land of Israel (even above and beyond the State of Israel) is our home, our homeland, our land. We cannot consider a Jewish Future as wandering Jews again and must be willing to stand by Israel regardless of any other political or culture force pulling/pushing us away.

*...and. purposefulness – the belief that “all of this” is neither random nor irrelevant.  It is not enough to find joy; the real search is for meaning. 

Joshua Ladon  Added by: Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
To follow on Marc and Joel's comments, I wonder if 'Jewish Education' is too broad of a category. Certainly, for me, Jewish identity is too amorphous and a bit unsatisfactory. I want to see my students living "activated" Jewish lives. That being said, there are also "orientations" towards these activities that I want my students to develop  (not Jon's which will be referenced later). 

In teaching at a community Jewish high school, some of my teaching is specifically geared towards religious purposefulness, while other times it is communal connectivity or heritage appreciation, spiritual openness, creative expression. While these can overlap, the types of Jewish lives they lead to are quite different. To call everything Jewish Education is confusing at times because there are things that one may call Jewish Education that others may disagree with.

As Joel noted, behavioral outcomes seem to offer clear measurables. To pose a very concrete example, one can learn Talmud to do a mitzvah. But we can learn Talmud for a number of reasons (see Jon's article on orientations) and as the reasons for study become more abstract, the behavioral outcomes become less clear.

One question I have pondered is what are the behavioral outcomes for non-religious Jews? While this term is often thrown around quite, I am thinking about Jews who are committed to Jewish peoplehood/culture but are not committed to spiritual pursuits. One of the reasons that I am uncomfortable with Julie's is that it could be perceived as a expression of liberal Jewish practice (it doesn't have to be, of course). What is the desired outcome for the peoplehood Jew?

I will just add, since we have arrived at outcomes, that Wendy Rosov's JDOV video (2023 Note: video no longer available) is worth looking at.

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
As our conversation will be coming to a close this evening, I wanted to give you an opportunity to share any closing thoughts or remarks.  Any new questions as a result of this conversation?  Any resolutions?  Thoughts on where to go from here?

Lee Moore
Jon, I love the poetry of your phrase, 'to create locations for the unlimited' and how Ari pointed us toward Sontag's mistrust of hardening. Balancing the way a lesson plan, or shiur, or immersive experience, or transformative shabbat dinner often works because its facilitator(s) lead it with the right kavanah (intention/spirit) for that time and place, those people involved ...with our desire for specific, measurable outcomes.

Can we respond to the charge for behavioral outcomes that Josh is requesting? When I ask myself what those look like, they would not necessarily be different from those I would hope any Jewish educational enterprise might have ... actions like protecting the margins of society, visiting the sick, demonstrating commitments to community in a variety of ways, practicing tools for respectful dialog, taking time to reflect and recharge weekly, taking stock of one's growth and mishaps annually. What if these are seen as elements within Jewish culture that impact being a part of a People as much as they do leading a halakhically-based lifestyle?

There are ways in which, for me, the let's-avoid-anything-religious-for-the-Peoplehood-Jews starts to break down when I think of the great wisdom of, for example, practicing shabbat and elul -- not only as obligations within the halakhic system, but as providing guidance and bringing value and enrichment to lives as they are being lived. Teaching kids (and adults) how to carve out time for rest and renewal because it's smart to do so, a great strategy for balance. What if the behavioral outcomes stemmed from traditional practices that are framed as time-honored tools for living a good life, not as an apologetic for finding a way to address those who don't subscribe to a certain ideology?

Julie Roth
This is extraordinarily complex. Marc beautifully articulated a set of educational outcomes that seem spot on for a day school context.  But would they be relevant or achievable in another setting?  Lee points towards a possibility to translate values and practices located in religious texts and practices into a secular/cultural/peoplehood context.  But how do we achieve this? Can religious educators (even liberal ones) create practices and communities of secular/cultural/peoplehood practice? Are there enough non- religious educators or lay people motivated to do this work?   My exploration of the framework of life as a sacred gift with Judaism as the roadmap is rooted in a desire and need on campus to define a meta-framework that in the details can apply to a broad diversity of Jews.

Jon A Levisohn
Our audience member Josh Ladon says, "I wonder if 'Jewish Education' is too broad of a category."  For me, this conversation has deepened and broadened (!) that concern as well.

Here's an analogy.  A couple of years ago, Brandeis, where I teach, decided that it needed to identity the central learning outcomes of a Brandeis education.  They came up with good stuff -- big, bold aspirations for what a Brandeis graduate should know and do and be.

Yet those big, bold aspirations have had, so far as I can tell, almost no impact on the actual teaching.  Which is not so surprising.  If I'm teaching chemistry, Chem 101, I've got quite a clear sense of what that class is all about.  Likewise if I'm teaching the history of the Civil War, or if I'm teaching German, or if I'm teaching Calculus.  I'm unlikely to stop and say, "I wonder how I can serve those big, bold aspirations that I remember hearing about."  I've got too much to do as it is!

Some Jewish educational settings are like that.  They're really clear about what they're doing: immersing students in social justice work or eco-kashrut, teaching them how to differentiate the layers of the Talmud and to explore the arguments of its editors, preparing them for a conversion exam, building a shared and pluralistic community, grappling with the presence or absence of God in the Shoah, learning to speak Hebrew.

In one sense, all of these settings (institutions, classes, etc.) are doing Jewish education.  But in another sense, they are doing quite specific things -- things that happen to fall under the umbrella that we call "Jewish education," to be sure, but where the desired outcome is much more specific.  Subject-specific, we might say, if we're willing to acknowledge that "subject" means much more than just traditional school subjects.

The Jewish public policy world -- philanthropists and foundation people, as well as federations and other agencies -- want to think about what "Jewish education" can accomplish.  If possible, they want to come up with a unified metric.  ["The plan is to form a new mechanism in Jerusalem, which would ... apply one measurement system to gauge success ... for the Jewish world."]  That's understandable, because the investment decisions are hard ones. How do you know whether to teach Talmud or modern Hebrew language or social justice if you cannot compare the outcomes on one shared metric?  How do you know whether to invest in summer camps or early childhood programs or semester-long Israel trips?

But it may be impossible.  Worse, it may have unintended negative consequences. 

I am not saying that we should abandon assessment.  I'm definitely not saying that we should give up on the conversation about our desired outcomes.  I'm just saying that we should not presume that, behind or above all the subject-specific outcomes (and assessments of those outcomes), is a big mega-outcome that represents what we've really been after all along.

And searching for that mega-outcome, and tailoring our educational programs to pursue it, and trying to assess it, might just end up derailing the best educational work that we do.

Sarah Levy  Added by: Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
There is not only one flavor of ice cream, not only one type of Jew, and not only one reason for Jewish education.

As a parent, I often think that if there were only one "right" way to parent, everyone would follow it, but that is not the case. Likewise, if there were only one "right" desired outcome for Jewish education, everyone would aim for that, and there would be no reason for conversations like this.

But that is not the case.

Reflecting on what Jon said ("And searching for that mega-outcome, and tailoring our educational programs to pursue it, and trying to assess it, might just end up derailing the best educational work that we do"), maybe it is best for us to recognize this and embrace it, just making sure that each of us, within our own spheres of influence, is clear as to why we do what we do and how we know when we have done a good job.

Daniel Petter-Lipstein  Added by: Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
Jon's excellent most recent comment about "derailing" the best education and how that might be caused by an overemphasis on measurement and outcomes reminds me of this excellent post by Larry Cuban which highlighted this tension which is a phenomenon in the larger education world and debate on reform. It can be summarized by the following 2 quotes:

Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Marquis de Condorcet, an eighteenth century French philosopher and social theorist.  “If this evidence cannot be weighted and measured, and if these effects cannot be subjected to precise measurement, then we cannot know exactly how much good or evil they contain”

There is a balance between these positions but I am increasingly concerned that the Jewish "public policy" world as Jon uses the term does not strike this balance well and I would also add that there is a significant under-appreciation from my limited vantage point of the potential for derailment as Jon terms it, simply due to what is known in social science as Campbell's Law:

"The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."

Jon A Levisohn
Daniel, I want to clarify that I wasn't actually talking about the dangers of an "overemphasis on measurement" in general.  To be sure, the issues that you raise are significant and worrisome, especially in the current climate in public education.  But I was trying to make a somewhat different point. 

Let me try to make it a different way.

At a conference on Taglit-Birthright a couple of years ago, Steven M. Cohen remarked that, once upon a time, we sent kids to Israel because we thought that sending kids to Israel was a good thing.  Now, however, we send kids to Israel to ... well, actually, it's not entirely clear what for, because some people support Taglit because they think it's going to produce aliya, and some because they think it's going to produce Jewish babies, and some because they think it's going to produce the shock troops for the defense of Israel on the college campuses, and some because they think it, yes, "strengthens identity."

In principle, any of these reasons could be good ones or bad ones.  Steven's point, though, is that we have instrumentalized Israel trips.  What is means for a trip to be "good" has been defined in a particular way.  It's not enough for those trips to produce a terrific educational experience, where kids learn a lot about Israel and become connected to a bunch of other kids.  No.  They have to have other outcomes.  The massive investment in those trips has come with a price.

So my point is not really about whether we ought to care about outcomes and measurement.  (We ought to.)  It's really about the hidden cost of instrumentalizing educational programs and initiatives, the way that we now expect that they are going to serve some other set of goals (paradigmatically, "strengthening Jewish identity"). Turning educational programs and initiatives into the means to some other end, like identity or continuity or pride, is unlikely to produce the rich and exciting kinds of learning opportunities to which we aspire.  Only deep passion for and sustained focus on subject-specific outcomes will do that.

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
Thank you Jon, Ari, Julie, Marc and Lee for an engaging and rich conversation. Thank you to those who have been following and contributing to the conversation. 

This is our first ReplyAll blogcast, and we want to thank the folks at ReplyAll for creating this medium and for all of your support in bringing this to fruition. Thank you to the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education for agreeing to partner in this initiative and make it a success.

Please visit our website, "like" us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter (@CASJE_2) to keep up with CASJE's happenings. Stay tuned for a second blogcast coming in August.

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