C.S. Lewis was almost prophetic when he wrote, “The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life — the life God is sending one day by day.” Although Lewis couldn’t know about COVID-19 and the interruptions it would bring, his words can guide us from looking at COVID-19 as an interruption to a challenge on how to better our efforts. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of Jewish education.
Famed educator Mickey Katzburg wrote, “The number one concern I hear in conversations is how to structure the educational experience when it has gone virtual, or has become a blend of frontal and online learning.” Looking forward, Senior educator Dr. Jonathan Mirvis wrote, “When we move out of lockdown, we will find ourselves in a world that is radically different from the one we left with far reaching implications for diaspora Jewish education.” Our new “real life” presents us with a challenge of how to improve Jewish education.
It is crucial that we focus on Jewish education while in the middle of the COVID-19 crises. With limited resources and opportunity, communities must focus on its most important values. As recorded in the Talmud, “Two thousand years ago the Cohen Gadol, (High Priest) Yehoshua Ben Gamla, instituted that teachers of young children should be appointed in each district and each town, and that children should enter school at the age of six or seven.” (Bava Batra 21a) Ben Gamla instituted the world’s first free public school education. His mandatory education fulfilled the Torah command we recite every day in the Shema, “Take to heart these mitzvot with which I command you on this day. Teach them to your children.” (Devarim 6:6) Jewish education is the only way to instil Jewish values, tradition and culture in the next generation.
In a generation focused on identity, Jewish parents worry if their children will possess strong Jewish identity. In their study on Jewish education, Dashefsky and Shapiro wrote, “To conclude that there is no relationship between Jewish education and Jewish identification is untenable.” Similarly, in their study, “When They Are Grown They Will Not Depart” Fishman and Goldstein, “Revealed the strong association between more extensive formal Jewish schooling and greater Jewish identification. Adults who had received six or more years of formal Jewish schooling scored higher in every measurable index of Jewish identification; they were more likely to belong to synagogues and Jewish organizations, to donate money to Jewish causes, to marry another Jew, to seek out a Jewish milieu, and to perform Jewish rituals in their homes.” Jewish education is center to a strong Jewish identity.
We must keep an eye to the future. We must look to steps we can take to secure a strong Jewish future after COVID-19. Here too, Jewish education is the key to success. Daat’s Jewsh education survey concluded, “In order for Jewish education to fulfill its positive potential in the American Jewish community, the clustering on Jewish educational experiences must be expanded to include larger segments of the American Jewish population.” Just as Lewis wrote a seeming prophecy, so did Dr. Barry Holtz in his “Outcomes of Jewish Education and the Philanthropic Community.” Holtz wrote, “We do know that Jewish education will have a role to play in defining the future, even if that future ends up looking very different from the world we live in today.” We don’t know what a post COVID world will look like, but we know if we want the next generation to come out strong Jews, they must have a strong Jewish education.
In “Six Ideas About the Future of Jewish Education & Engagement” The American Jewish Federation concluded, “If engagement is to facilitate Jewish growth—and if education is to do the same—sophisticated, authentic content needs to be present in the process. Senior Jewish educators—rabbis or other highly knowledgeable and nimble educators—have capacity both for relationships and for facility with Jewish content. They are rabbis and educators without portfolio, who exist to strengthen the work of peer connectors.”
We can’t just assume our children will grow to be strong, committed Jews who identify with their Jewish faith. We must work and dedicate resources to ensure they grow. In our program of Jewish Student Centers across multiple campuses in Israel, we’re not taking a break during COVID, calling it an interruption and waiting it out. We don’t see this as an interruption. As Lewis wrote, this is the life God has sent us, and we’re aiming to meet the challenge. We are committing ourselves more than ever, meeting the challenge of COVID, and strengthening Jewish identity, values and commitment of college age students across Israel. If this is our new life, and it requires us to double our efforts as educators, provide better content and strengthen the bonds, we will succeed.