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Jewish Education: Transmission or Transformation?

Shani BechhoferFilmed at Wexner Institute

Whether as parents, supervisors, or teachers, so many of us are in fact Jewish educators. I believe that at the very core of these roles, there is a tension between the responsibilities of transmission and transformation. Do we strive to raise children/followers (banim) or builders/innovators (bonim)? In my talk, I argue that the way we choose to engage with this enduring dynamic between the two paradigms has much less to do with ideology and more to do with personality and dispositions. I challenge listeners to use this lens to reflect thoughtfully on our choices and goals when it comes to education.

Shani Bechhofer is an assistant professor at Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education at Yeshiva University, where she teaches current and future Jewish studies teachers and day school principals, mentors doctoral students, and is (further) developing her sinister side by serving as chair of several dissertation committees. Shani also consults independently as an evaluator of Jewish education initiatives and as a coach to Jewish day schools across the country, supporting principals and lay leaders who wish to engage in systemic school improvement. Before finally completing her dissertation on Bais Yaakov and earning her PhD from Northwestern University, Shani worked for over 15 years as a teacher and principal in Orthodox girls’ high schools in New York and Chicago and for 4 years as a researcher at JESNA. She lives in Monsey with her husband Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer, a scholar and teacher, and their 6 kids ages 8-20. In her spare time she cooks, worries, and tries to figure out how to integrate her spiritual, intellectual, and personal passions and responsibilities.

About a year and a half ago I became a Bubbi and this was a very meaningful unexpectedly meaningful transition for me in my life. One of the main joys has been to watch my own child grow into the role of a parent, I get to watch her playing with the baby like I did, singing some of the same songs I used to sing and it’s very gratifying, all of a sudden I’m wise. I know how to make babies sleep through the night, I know what different diaper rashes mean and I enjoy that. I was told by my mother when she became a great grandmother, that the most important thing I can actually do though for my grandchildren and for my daughter is not to bask in the glory but to help her feel like a competent, a good mum, to give her the self confidence. That was a really important lesson for me, of course my Mum who is incredibly wise. Transitions do not go quite as simply and as smoothly and as enjoyably as what I have just described but they are a natural part of life as a mortal being. This afternoon I want to talk with you about one of the dilemmas a core dilemma that I think that presents to Jewish educators and I’m going to talk about Jewish education broadly conceived.

There’s an enduring tension in Jewish education and general education between two different paradigms, a concurrent set of commitments. Do we want to prepare students to navigate within societies expectations? Do we want to prepare them to challenge societies expectations? Do we want to emphasize tradition and continuity? Do we want to bring about renewal and redemption for our people? We want to do all these things. We are committed to doing both, all but there are times that they are in tension with one another. We have a concept of the mesorah, the received tradition and received wisdom and we also have a commitment to chiddush, to new insights to making Judaism come alive for our students. We want to emphasize enduring values and we want them to be able to apply them to contemporary challenges. In the first paradigm the virtues that we emphasize are respect and reverence in the second, idealism and responsibility, a sense of efficacy, we want our students to feel like they can make a difference, the teacher instructs and guides and the teacher elicits the opinions of the students. The authority of the past and the compelling demands of the future draw us in both directions and I’m calling these 2 paradigms transition and transformation; this is not new we are all familiar with these modes of being as an educator, as a Jew, we hear the shofar of Sinai and we hear the Shofar of the Moshiach and we are called to heed both of them and sometimes they may pull us in different directions, but these are duties at the core of the Jewish educator. And this is the essential dilemma I want to discuss today with you.

So what is identity? Is identity a set of values? Is it a dialogue among voices? I’m going to argue that identities are structured around certain small number of core tensions that really shape and define who we are and how we behave and act. As Jewish educators then I would say that the tension between these two paradigms is sort of at the core of our identity as educators. The assumption is that people who have a religious ideology that tends more towards honoring the transmission of the past and feel more commanded will probably take more of a transmission approach. Those on more liberal ends of things take more transformation approach, but I actually have not found this to be true my experience is that what we actually do when we teach and educate in the many ways in which we educate, the way we conduct ourselves has much more to do with our personalities than with our philosophies. I actually think our ideology is a convenient explanatory framework for dilemmas and tensions that we face but we would probably do better to move beyond it. We will usually tend in our daily responsibilities, I believe, to fall back on experience, skills, anxieties. Much more so than making a whole ideological analysis of each problem that presents itself in each situation. So back to the Jewish educator, I have seen educators of all stripes struggle with issues around control and authority in the classroom, how much critical thinking should there be in a Torah classroom? How do you instill Jewish values and commitment? I don’t have an answer but I do want to share a hunch. I believe the Jewish tradition gives us a key to approaching this dilemma there’s a text that says- bechol benayich limudei Hashem v’rav shalom banayich…when all your children are learned of God, great will be the peace of your children and our sages say, read not bnayich your children but bonayich your builders. I think this is the key to thinking about Jewish education. Not as children, as passive recipients, as beneficiaries, will the next generation come to truly love Torah but rather with an active role. They have to build, build for Judaism for the Jewish community in order to feel connected to the past not just the future, great minds and great hearts must be bonim, builders not only banim, children. It’s about the renewal and vitality of our communal institutions which we discuss so much and which we debate. The transmission model looks like the concentration of decision making power in the hands of a few in inner-circle, it rewards loyalty over initiative and it provides security and control. Something very important about the role of transmission, we don’t want everyone to make it up as they go along, we need continuity in our organizations too, but at the same if we stick with that paradigm it comes at a cost and it’s the cost of responsive nimble organizations. If we nurture leadership and initiative throughout our organizations we will reward ideas and not people. This is a discussion about mentors and supervisors who believe that our responsibility is the transmission of our wisdom and our accumulated experience, the vision of the right way to do things and it makes me wonder what would it look like if organizational leaders were held accountable for devolving power? Distributing leadership, sharing the limelight and the credit and rewarding the good ideas not the people? What would it look like if our major Jewish organizations were actually structured as incubators rather than having to segment off that active, that transformative behavior into somewhere else? I think it comes down to a very basic question: do we really believe the next generation could come up with better answers than ours ? Do wereally think that they could find a better solution and if so what guidance do they need from us? What expertise do they need to acquire and how much freedom do they need in order to fulfill their potential?

I want to say to you that I do not believe that the tension between transmission and transformation is an ideological one, a religious and philosophical one, not that I deny that it’s at the core of Jewish identity too but in our lives as we think about generations come and generations go, this is something we each struggle with in meaningful ways but I also want to say that I think this tension is not going to be resolved, it shouldn’t be resolved, there’s not a right way and a wrong way, it’s a driving energy. This energy is fundamental to our identities as we meet the authority of the past and demands of the future and the ambivalence and the ambiguity are actually built into sacred task as parents as educators as grandmothers as supervisors and mentors and in all the ways that we think about the future as it will be beyond ourselves and we do and and we should. This is a sacred endeavor to take their responsibility for community and covenant. I want to leave you with the thought and the questions about the balances that you find in these different areas of your life.

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