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Jewish Education Should Have ‘Shoulds’


Benjamin M. Jacobs and Shuki Taylor

Sapir Journal, Vol. 6, Summer 2022

“The universalization of Jewish education is built on the premise that a program can be everything to everyone. But trying to be everything to everyone often results in being nothing to anyone.”

Educational systems generally favor stability over change. Most educational efforts aim to preserve and convey cultural norms from one generation to the next through particular content, skills, behaviors, morals, and dispositions. New ways of knowing, seeing, or doing are typically met with backlash and resistance. New schemes that manage to penetrate educational systems wind up being retrofitted to conform to existing organizational structures, rather than bringing about the large-scale change that their creators might have envisioned.

Despite these challenges, we can point to initiatives that have had a significant impact on the evolution of the Jewish educational enterprise in North America over the past century, particularly in recent decades. Some of these changes have been countercultural, providing fresh alternatives to the long-standing forms of Jewish schooling and summer camping that dominate the landscape. Take, for instance, the explosion in both the supply of and the demand for experiential education programs — informal Jewish education — ranging from Jewish-themed group travel to online gaming. Some reforms are more progressive, insofar as they aim to modernize, update, restructure, or renew well-established Jewish educational activities and settings. Organizations such as EdahMoEd, and Makom bill themselves as “not your grandparents’ Hebrew school,” even if they are still Jewish after-school programs. Others take a more moderate tack, like the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, which fosters disruptive change in the service of teaching traditional Jewish values and wisdom.

One recent initiative that defies easy categorization, and with which we have both been deeply involved, is the 18×18 Educational Framework18 Things a Young Jew Should Know, Care About, and Be Able to Do by Age 18. The 18×18 was developed by one of us, Benjamin Jacobs, and Barry Chazan on behalf of a consortium of leading Jewish educational philanthropies (including Maimonides Fund, publisher of Sapir). It addresses a series of core questions related to being Jewish in the 21st century. How can education foster Jewish life in an open society? What launches young Jews on a Jewish educational journey today, and what inspires them to continue that journey? How do we prepare Jewish children for effective citizenship and participation in ever-changing Jewish communities?

More specifically, the objectives of this project are to: 1) articulate a vision of core Jewish content, attitudes, values, skills, and commitments that Jews should develop over the course of their lives; 2) formulate frameworks for Jewish learning that foster this vision; and 3) contribute something valuable and constructive to the important work of practitioners in a wide array of formal and informal educational settings.

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