Nancy Parkes (dipping her brush) leading a session on social, emotional and spiritual learning at "Elevate: Inspiring New Paths in Jewish Education," Jan. 13 in San Francisco. (Laura Turbow)
Nancy Parkes (dipping her brush) leading a session on social, emotional and spiritual learning at "Elevate: Inspiring New Paths in Jewish Education," Jan. 13 in San Francisco. (Laura Turbow)

Israel, ‘chill pills’ and masculinity: the new Jewish education

The setups in the rooms were the first clue that this was a different kind of Jewish educators’ conference.

At “Elevate: Inspiring New Paths in Jewish Education,” a full-day conference held Jan. 13 at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco, one room had crayons and pipe cleaners on each table. A second room had pieces of paper with long quotes from Zionist leaders pasted to the walls. A third was entirely ready for dancing — or, more precisely, “embodied Jewish learning.” None of the rooms had chairs lined up in stodgy rows, facing a teacher’s blackboard.

Say “Hebrew school” to American Jews, and many will conjure up images (or their own memories) of students reciting the Hebrew alphabet in unison, or memorizing rote facts about Israel’s founding. Probably while sitting in rows of chairs facing a blackboard.

That’s not the best way to teach young Jews how to live Jewishly today, says David Waksberg, longtime CEO of Jewish LearningWorks, the S.F.-based education organization that spearheaded the conference. And it probably never was.

“This last century saw two crises: the journey to America, and the Holocaust,” he told J. during a break in the conference. “Jewish education became about not losing more Jews. I get it, and I’m a product of that. But it doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did.”

Certainly there’s a lot of Jewish content that one generation must pass on to the next, from Hebrew language to Bible to Jewish history, traditions and culture. But the impetus for that transmission of knowledge shouldn’t be fear for the future.

“In the last century, Jewish leaders were grappling with assimilation and Jewish continuity,” Waksberg continued. “Jewish educators were tasked with building Jewish identity. That’s not how education works. Nor is it how Judaism works.”

This was the first Jewish educators’ conference in many years in the Bay Area, Waksberg said in his introductory remarks. And it’s clear there was a need; organizers planned for 120 or so attendees, and nearly 280 people registered, selling out the event. They weren’t all Jewish educators, per se. There were philanthropists, heads of social service agencies, parents, therapists and others working in all kinds of fields that reach Jewish children.

“For me, it was an indicator of how deep the desire for learning is among Jewish educators,” said Dana Sheanin, the incoming CEO of Jewish LearningWorks (Waksberg retires in June). “This was a really good opportunity to remind people that investing in teachers is important.”

Child-directed education was one of the themes of the day, with several sessions focused on letting children guide their own learning.

Social and emotional learning was another focus. In her session, New York-based educator Nancy Parkes emphasized the need not just to pass Jewish values to the next generation, but to help children develop their social and emotional skills. That’s one way they “become mensches,” she said.

We have gone crazy. We are expecting children to step from toddler to junior statesman with nothing in between.

In a session led by Deborah Meyer of Moving Traditions, a Pennsylvania-based organization that creates b’nai mitzvah programs, participants walked to corners of the room to stand under signs that best described their own middle-school selves.

“We want to get ourselves in the place of, who was I, what was it like when I was 12 and 13?” Meyer told the group.

Serving a slightly older demographic, David Lieberman is a facilitator for Shevet, a program for high school-age boys at New York City’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. He said the arrangement helps them to explore masculinity in a safe space.

“What do boys need — in our context, it’s Jewish boys — in order to become themselves?” he asked.

Lieberman said social isolation is a huge problem, with boys feeling increasingly disconnected from their feelings and embarrassed to confide in friends. At the same time, social pressures about acting “like a man” are ever-present.

“They’re being inundated with messages they are not unpacking or thinking critically about,” he said.

Shevet gives them a place to talk about what they see in the world, and what Jewish texts tell them about responsibility and adulthood. The program also teaches media literacy skills, which allow the teenagers to look more deeply at what society is communicating to and about them.

“We can have a roomful of people who are reaching toward, what does it mean to be brave, what does it mean to be a man?” he said.

Keynote speaker was psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” who took aim at modern parental anxiety, from overscheduling to helicoptering, from testing madness to location-tracking on kids’ phones.

“We have gone crazy,” she said. “We are expecting children to step from toddler to junior statesman with nothing in between.”

She praised the value of “taking a chill pill” and letting children experience risk in order to learn how to live. She also praised what she called loitering or skylarking: simply observing the world and letting thoughts flow.

“We can think about Jewish education as one of the most profound forms of loitering in a world that has lost that skill,” she said.

Speaking to Israel education, Rabbi Josh Ladon said students can tell when they’re being led by the nose, all the more so when they are in high school and college. That’s where Israel education has fallen down, he said during his session on “Zionism, Peoplehood and the Challenge of Instrumentalist Education.” Instead of directing them toward a predetermined goal of “loving Israel” or becoming “more committed” — goals that could easily backfire — Ladon, the West Coast director of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, emphasized the need to respect students by giving them all of the information they need to make up their own minds and fashion their own Jewish identity.

Organizers have not decided how often this conference will take place in the future. Maybe every couple of years, Sheanin suggests. For now, she hopes participants feel inspired to apply what they learned at the event — with ongoing support from Jewish LearningWorks.

“We are here all year round,” she said, “with the same workshops and training that you saw during the conference.”