The professional field of Jewish education is a roller coaster. There are moments when I am deeply inspired by my work — when my optimism about the future growth, success, and adaptation of the Jewish people is high. Then, there are the times when I fear that the future of an engaged North American Jewish populace is bleak. I strive, however, for eternal optimism, so I embrace the idea that although Jewish communal life might look differently than it did 50, 20, or even two years ago, there is a deeply embedded cultural and religious norm that opens the door to that growth, success, and adaptation: the drive to pursue and increase knowledge and wisdom through education.
Jewish learning is not exclusively for children, teens and young adults, although it can sometimes feel like the Jewish communal world is organized and funded as though it is. Despite the pressures of adulthood, we also have a great responsibility to make our own space and time for Jewish learning. The great Rav Hillel wrote:
Do not say: “When I have leisure time I shall study.” Perhaps you will never have leisure time.
We must make the time as adults and identify the resources, programs, institutions and teachers that fit our specific learning goals. Here are a few reasons why the time is now for adults — no matter background, affiliation or experience — to prioritize Jewish learning.
First, Jewish learning does not look the same as it did in previous decades or for previous generations. Access to the marketplace of diverse Jewish ideas, tutorials, and wisdom abounds in the digital sphere. There is no longer one way to learn or access Jewish content. The modalities, instructors and tools for engagement make for a differentiated, enjoyable experience.
As our community makes its way out of the pandemic, opportunities for in-person learning and engagement are right around the corner. Teachers, clergy, institutions, congregations and schools have learned and adopted a whole host of new methods for engagement that will remain part of educational theory and impact. In the Detroit Jewish community, we are blessed with exceptional programs, educators, scholars and teachers who consistently make themselves available to deliver Jewish content to adults and who incorporate new and innovative teaching methods. The creative nature of engaged adult learning is compelling and exciting.
Second, we are living at a time when polarization across many societal categories can feel paralyzing. There is rarely safe space to express open and honest opinion without fear of attack or even a fear of being “cancelled.” Pluralistic Jewish learning environments not only teach adult students how to argue about Jewish issues, but the very act of learning by listening to and interpreting many points of view is invaluable. Listening for understanding and respecting multiple perspectives at one time are skills that adults often lose as we age and become more set in our ways. Learning through a pluralistic lens teaches us how to see many sides of a story or an issue and it also teaches us how to ask questions that help clarify understanding. Jewish adults today need opportunities to flex these muscles with diverse groups of learners who have a range of experiences and perspectives.
Third, the constant churn of the news cycle can cause exhaustion and exasperation. It is a challenge to decide what content to consult, read or trust. The era of “fake news” makes understanding the landscape challenging enough — but it becomes even more complicated as we try to process media through a Jewish lens. As we process a particular news story, we ask questions about which commitments we are holding.
Am I digesting this news as a Jew first or as an American first? As a person who puts the project of peoplehood above all else, or as someone who puts first the Jewish values around humanity?
Our identities are inherently part of the way we navigate the modern world with all its challenges and strengths. Adults need a place to explore these issues — as Jews, as Americans and as human beings — with vulnerability and without fear of being attacked. Adult Jewish learning spaces provide just that opportunity.
Finally, Jewish adults are essential role models to the next generation. Our preschoolers, teens, college students and young adults need wisdom and guidance from those who came before them. The Hebrew term “dugmah ishit” — that leadership by example — is particularly relevant to this conversation. How else will younger generations of Jews learn how to ask questions about Jewish life, apply learning to their lives and feel as though they have a place at the table? For this reason alone, commitment to adult Jewish learning is a sacred responsibility.
Making a personal commitment to Jewish learning can seem daunting. But the availability of resources and need for engagement have never been greater. There are many creative modes for learning across denominational lines, as well as talented clergy and educators that can help develop skills for analyzing and applying texts. As is the nature of “adulting,” the ultimate responsibility falls to each of us to take advantage of these incredible resources and own our experiences. Whether by Zoom or by room, let’s strive to fill Jewish learning classrooms. There is value and joy in the experience of reaching back in time and applying the wisdom of our people to understanding the world around us.
Check out Hope, Love, and Compassion: Torah of Possibility for an Uncertain Future, a free, virtual Summer Symposium presented by The Shalom Hartman Institute, July 5 - 15, to explore what the Jewish future could look like.