Outside In: Jewish Education that Matters

Jon Woocher and I both grew up on the South Shore of Long Island. His father was my childhood dentist and our parents were friends. Ironically, we did not know each other from our childhood; we only discovered that connection when we began to collaborate as professionals.

Even before I knew Jon, his book, Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews, which came out in 1986, had a big impact on my thinking. He understood, as few others did, that a religious heritage could manifest itself not just in people’s patterns of religious observance, but also in their civic behavior. In fact, if our metrics were synagogue attendance, belief in God, and religious observance, Jews would be described as among the least conventionally religious ethnic groups in America.

Yet Jews are, arguably, the most civically engaged ethnic group America has ever seen. That is true both in the way that the Jewish community organizes itself (e.g., the Federation system, ties to Israel and world Jewry, educational institutions, social service agencies, and thousands of Jewish non-profits serving every cause under the sun), as well as the way Jews are over-represented in the social, political, and civic institutions that underpin American society.

This article appeared in Gleanings, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 2018 published by The William Davidson School of Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The issue was titled, “Jewish Education to Help Us Thrive” and was dedicated to the memory of Dr. Jonathan Woocher, one of the leading figures in Jewish education of the past 50 years.

When PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values was founded in 1988, Jon headed up the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA), and I asked him to serve on PANIM’s Advisory Board. His enthusiasm was precisely the kind of validation that a young social entrepreneur needs. A few years later, JESNA would become the cosponsor for PANIM’s Jewish Civic Initiative, what would become (at the time) the largest Jewish service-learning initiative in the country. Our working relationship continued for over 25 years, a time he reflects upon in the chapter he wrote for my book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (2013). Jon’s chapter, entitled, “Jewish Education: From Continuity to Meaning” argued that the key question facing the field of Jewish education today is not group preservation but rather conveying a sense of personal meaning.

PANIM’s mission was to inspire young people to assume leadership roles on the local, national, and international stage and to be activists on issues of concern to the Jewish people and to the world at large. The methodology involved integrating Jewish learning, Jewish values, and social responsibility. In effect, PANIM was a beta test in using Judaism as a vehicle for individuals to live thriving, meaningful lives.

It is worth reflecting on how PANIM attracted thousands of Jewish teens to a fairly serious Jewish educational program at a time when the vast majority of teens were not flocking to such structured Jewish educational programs as Hebrew high schools or synagogue post-confirmation classes. One, the program was billed as a “trip to Washington D.C. to explore politics, social justice, and service.” This is what got most of our participants to sign up. Two, we planned the experience to be personally transformational. Our aim was for PANIM to change the way that these young people would forever understand the relationship between their Jewish identity and their responsibility to the world. We were, in effect, following Jon’s prescriptions for what Jewish education and should be aiming for.

A key principle that guided our entire educational methodology was this: Every concept had to be developed from the outside in, not from the inside out. An “inside-out” methodology assumes that a Jewish value, a biblical quotation, or a Jewish rabbinic text will have inherent significance to students. That is the approach that typifies most Jewish educational strategies in conventional Jewish institutions. We, however, made no such assumption about our teen participants. In fact, we assumed that they came to us skeptical of the relevance of Jewish texts and values. The outside-in methodology had a different starting point: “How does X (e.g., human rights, poverty, discrimination, climate change, war, hunger, refugees) affect the world you live in and how can you make a positive difference?”

Few things are more motivating to a teenager than to be empowered to make a difference in the world. PANIM’s programs ended with meetings on Capitol Hill and with members of Congress. We challenged teens to exercise their democratic right to petition public officials. The primary tool they had for these meetings was the information they garnered during our policy sessions. Given that virtually every public policy issue has a moral/ethical dimension, the integration of Jewish wisdom was therefore organic and welcomed. Every educational unit we developed and curriculum we published integrated the wisdom of the Jewish tradition with analysis of social and political issues that would dramatically impact the world these teens were about to inherit.

We didn’t have to preach Jewish pride to our teens; rather, they instinctively understood that their heritage included generations of wisdom about how we need to repair a broken world. Thus, they learned that Jewish people were among the most politically engaged citizens of America. Jews learned the hard way what can result when political regimes don’t protect the most vulnerable among us.

Jon often used the term “civil religion.” It involves asking, “How will Jews behave toward each other with people of other faith and ethnic backgrounds and with the people and institutions that lead our society and the world?”

Every Jewish school, synagogue, and organization would do well to take a step back and ask whether or not they are advancing a Jewish framework that matters to their respective constituencies, and how they can practice “outside in.” This is what gives people a sense of meaning and purpose. This is what releases the power of Judaism to help people flourish and thrive. When this is offered by Jewish institutions, the identity and continuity questions take care of themselves.