Remarks by Manette Mayberg at the 2016 Innovators Retreat
We are almost at Shavuot – an opportune time to gather together – this small but powerful group of Jewish educators and influencers. Shavuot marks our start as a nation, our acceptance of the Torah. The connection is obvious, yet so much deeper than the obvious. If I asked anyone here, what does Jewish education have to do with Shavuot? With B’nai Israel’s acceptance of the Torah? It’s not hard to answer. Jewish education is by definition conveyance of the Torah. What we define as Torah and select to convey is different across the Jewish spectrum, but there is, I believe, a universal task to develop Jewish identity.
When we stood at Mt. Sinai and said "na’aseh vnishma", we will do and we will hear, we became kadosh, holy – G-d called us – "kadoshim". What does it mean “kadosh”? literally, it means distinct, separate. If I asked you to separate holy objects in your home from everyday objects, it’s easy. You would take Jewish texts and items and compile them together distinct from the novels and the dishes. When we think of holiness, we know it means distinct in its essence. We handle holy objects with such care, such consideration, kiss a holy book if it drops…
This is the responsibility we are tasked with in Jewish education. To convey the holy Torah, THE sustainer of Judaism for thousands of years. If it were only a matter of conveyance, any model of teaching would be just fine. But it’s so much more. Are we effectively communicating to our kids a message of eternity that they can embrace? Don’t our children, the future of our people, deserve the most thoughtful approach possible? I believe our kids respond to inspirational education that both accomplishes goals of learning text and understanding its relevance to our lives in an engaging and updated framework. The only way we can make that happen is to really put our heads together and design the inspired future.
In Ethics of the Fathers, we find a puzzling statement that illuminates why it is not enough to simply transmit text or information: It says in Perkei Avot, "Ready yourself for the study of Torah because it is NOT your inheritance. And all of your deeds should be for the sake of Heaven." Leon Wieseltier, in his book "Kaddish" reflects on this, (quote) “I have pondered this statement for years. It is the most counterintuitive observation about tradition that I have found in tradition. What an estrangement it proposes: The Torah is not my inheritance! How can this be? If I was taught anything, it is that the Torah is my inheritance…..
The wisdom here is instructive for us in Jewish education. Don’t assume that the transmission of knowledge conveys ownership. In other words, as Erica Brown comments on this mishna in her book Seder Talk, "I cannot assume that just because someone passed down knowledge to me that it is mine. I cannot assume that because I transmit knowledge to you, that it is yours. In the transmission of tradition there is a moment between the giving and the receiving, a moment when it is no longer the possession of the [teacher] and not yet the possession of the [student], a moment of jeopardy, like the pause in a beating heart, a moment of discontinuity, a beat skipped, when what has stopped has still to start, and what has been transmitted can slip away or run out."
When the pasuk says, "Ready yourself" it’s an alert - the moment of transmission of Torah is the most vulnerable. Danger lurks in the classroom of Jewish education. If the giver is not surrounding the transfer of knowledge with context and relevance, with love and kindness and tolerance, that moment of suspension between giver and receiver can fail. Not that the knowledge itself is not transmitted, but the holiness, the distinction, that which is vital to internalizing the knowledge is lost. Dropped and lost in that moment of suspended time between giver and receiver – teacher and student.
If transmission of text remains the end game, then we are not responsibly delivering Jewish education. If we do not protect that suspended moment of knowledge transmission to create successful ownership and prevent lost legacy, then we are radically underperforming in our most important life investment, the education of our children. If we mistakenly assume that transference of knowledge is enough to sustain future generations, then we are not seeing the big picture of Jewish education. If we are satisfied with a system that rewards and punishes by the standards of contemporary secular education, then we are off course in the way we think about holiness, kedusha, the obligation that we accepted when we said "na’aseh vnishma."
Louis and I are approaching a million dollars in investment since JEIC’s start. We are not flippant investors. We are known to take prudent risks, successfully investing our dollars in seeding movements. We invest in patient strategies to align for success with a spirit of inclusivity. We encourage cooperation between diverse constituencies. We stimulate innovation and inspire courage to demand and create change.
Leadership here at JEIC intends to compel the players in Jewish education to make an honest assessment of our collective effectiveness. How is our application of general studies educational methods affecting our conveyance of our all-important holy material? Let’s be real in our assessment of how existing Jewish education models effect our students’ self-esteem and the resulting Jewish lives they lead after graduation. Knowledge transference is crucial but can we hold up this alone as an accomplishment and not look beyond the grades and rankings? Perhaps, at the expense of self-esteem, of inspiration, of independence and Jewish life preparedness? Every student should exit the system with holistic competency as a Jew, both textually and spiritually, each according to his or her way. Students are no different than we…. some are more scholarly and academic, some are more emotionally driven or analytic and some more readily connect contextually. Every Jew has different G-d given potential and our job is to value the efforts of every student, not to value accomplishment of one over another. Our obligation, Jewish obligation, as parents, educators, influencers and funders of this system is to ensure that every Jewish student fulfills his or her unique potential - period. The goal is for every student to feel successful in Jewish studies no matter how much material is covered or not, no matter how much is memorized or not – Jewish wisdom tells us it’s the effort, not the result that counts. We can leave those simple assessments of volume of material and memorization to general studies. There’s nothing simple or black and white about conveying our holy subjects. It’s complicated, it’s voluminous, it’s grey and it has the potential to mold the soul of a human being with the most beautiful, powerful result. Nothing worth doing is easy, but together, we can find the way forward.
We the Jewish people don’t lack courage or fortitude. It’s in our DNA. When Avraham was cast into the fire by Nimrod, he was suspended for just a moment in time. He didn’t need proof to make that leap. He was propelled to jump by his heart that was in perfect harmony with his head. There was no fear because when your head and your heart are in sync, your whole being is propelled forward to trust and believe without a doubt in your ability to prevail. My urgency to catapult Jewish education to the forefront of innovation using the wisdom of our tradition is propelled by head and heart. As you will see today, we, the Jewish people, boast talent with potential to move the transmission of our holy Torah into a place of intellectual and spiritual balance. Where that vulnerable place of suspension between giver and receiver, teacher and student is a place of growth and opportunity, not a place of loss. Together, we can take that courageous leap, like Avraham, with perfect clarity that the synergy between head and heart, between knowledge and love, is our key to survival. Together, we can design an inspired future.
I couldn’t be more thrilled and proud at this moment to announce a new initiative funded and guided by new philanthropic and operational partners here at JEIC. We will begin work immediately following the retreat on what we have named our new "Team Challenge". Thank you to our Foundation Director, Todd Sukol, and JEIC Managing Director, Rabbi Feld, for developing this exciting idea. The idea is to put together a select team to devise innovative educational models for our schools. We are already speaking with schools which will potentially pilot the models that are developed, just as we pilot the models of the Educators’ Challenge grantees. We anticipate that this will bring us closer to our ultimate goal of transforming our Jewish education system with proven models of innovative and contemporary technique.
The most exciting piece of this initiative for me, is that we are joined by 3 partners. To embark on a new project with others by our side is thrilling and frankly a game changer. The Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah has significantly invested in the future of the Jewish people through Jewish education. Louis and I were privileged to meet with Joe Kanfer a couple of times over the last year and clearly we have a meeting of the minds about what Jewish education should look like. Jonathan Woocher, here with us today, leader of the Foundation, clearly shares the vision that propels Lippman Kanfer forward and has resulted in a perfect partnership for the team challenge. Jon has worked hard with Todd to make this partnership a reality. Thank you, Jon.
Arnee Winshall, what can I say to Arnee? You have been an important role model and thought partner since JEIC began. Your leadership and commitment to improving Jewish education through your entrepreneurial efforts to design and install the best delivery system for Hebrew language in schools, is inspirational. We have been blessed to visit each other in both of our home fronts and see firsthand some of the work that we each do. I loved visiting your Jewish Community Day School of Boston, which shines from the incredible devotion you have given it. I am deeply appreciative to you and Walt for your partnership.
The Joshua Venture Group, headed by Lisa Lepson, here with us today, will be facilitating the teams. The team challenge process can enjoy success with the talented guidance and experienced facilitation Lisa and her team offer. Lisa, thank you for your continued belief in our mission and sharing your talents with us at our retreats and now our new Team Challenge.