I had a conversation with a Rabbi recently. He was upset because a cantorial colleague of his had decided to strike out on her own, performing “destination B’nai Mitzvah”, divorcing herself from synagogue life, and setting up private Hebrew schools in community club-houses. He fretted that this is antithetical to the idea of community and affiliation. He felt that to be a true part of the Jewish community, one needed to belong to a synagogue. He continued, pointing out that he knows that times are changing, but he is concerned that the future of Judaism “may bear no resemblance to the Judaism that we are familiar with.” I looked at him, paused, smiled, and said, “I certainly hope so.”
At the recent Judaism 2030 conference, Jonathan Woocher, Chief Ideas Officer of JESNA, asked participants to share their visions for Judaism in the year 2030. I always get nervous about future oriented questions like that. A lot can happen in the next 19 years. In the past, the face of Judaism has unpredictably and unalterably been transformed in shorter spans of time. Yes we need to keep our eyes on the target of long term goals. For me I guess I’d want to see inclusive, engaged and vibrant Jewish communities both in and outside of Israel. But I also think we need to be very careful that in our rush to embrace our visions, we don’t ignore the realities of what our students need today. After all, what will be is built on what is. At a recent NATE webinar on the “History of Identity and Technology” facilitated by Ari Kelman, this very theme was brought up. By engaging our students in the process of creating their own Jewish knowledge databank today, we can shape how their Jewish practice might look in 2 decades
The reality in America today is that we are in the midst of an era in which supply side economic theory is victorious and has trickled down to what we do as Jewish educators. It’s become all about lowering “regulatory” barriers that prevent individual expression. No longer does the synagogue determine what it means to be Jewish. Parents and kids are searching for ways to engage in Judaism on their own terms - a free market mentality. The Judaism of tomorrow will be very different from what we, our parents, and grandparents are familiar with. It will be shaped by what we do today.
There is no one answer, one tool, one technology that can prepare us for this mission. There are many answers: learning via camp-like experiences, digital platforms, family programming, Day schools, Hebrew charter schools, even old-fashioned congregational schools. These are what we are familiar with now. I expect that more approaches that we haven’t thought of yet will arise. All we do know is that we must be open to the idea of choice. Rather then reject we must be prepared to embrace. We educators must be given the resources to retool and re-envision our profession. “Teaching” as a concept is undergoing a metamorphosis, reflective of new modes of learning that are embedded in what Eisen and Cohen called “the Sovereign Self”. We need to reconcile ourselves to this today. If we don’t adjust how we “teach” and “lead”, we’ll render ourselves obsolete.