We affirm that, over the long run, any effective educational enterprise should contain the five elements that Kaplan outlined in his chapter on Jewish Education. Our capacity to
remain reliable measures of an effective Jewish education. The best of our program will include all these elements within them, although different educational venues will put an emphasis on one element or another.
Sue Penn: I believe that in our limited time for Hebrew instruction, we can build prayerbook fluency and basic decoding skills. Students who continue studying post Bar/Bat Mitzvah can engage in deeper Hebrew learning.
George Kelley: I think it is crazy what we try to do in Religious Schools with the limited hours and the competition of so much that pulls students away. That said we can instill a sense of importance in Hebrew but the parents want synagogue competence, even if only for Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Hebrew is the passport to the Jewish world. Too often we think of it as about prayer and Israel. That is our failing but we are set up to fail by the structure of synagogue based education.
Dr. Eric Caplan: I agree with the other commentators that Hebrew fluency is hard to impart in today’s Jewish reality. That’s why I’m more inclined to strive for the type of Jewish literacy that Hayyim Greenberg advocates for in his essay of 1951 on Jewish education in the diaspora, “if [a Jew] does not know to their deepest sounding and in their context of spiritual tensions such Hebrew expressions as mitzvah (divine commandment), aveira (transgression), geulah (redemption), tikkun (repair), tumah (ﬁlthiness), tahara (ritual purity), yira (fear), ahava (love), tzedaka (righteousness), chesed (loving-kindness), mesirut nefesh (self-abnegation), kiddush Hashem (sanctiﬁcation of the name), dvekut (cleaving to God), teshuvah (repentance), he cannot carry a part in that choir that gives voice, consciously or not, to what I have called “the Jewish melody.”
Rabbi James Greene: Kaplan writes that if we want to develop an interest in Jewish life we need to, “make him (the learner) feel like he is a necessary part of the Jewish community.” Jewish education that focuses on formal lessons and texts will fail to truly integrate into community. The beauty of Kaplan’s vision is that it stretches beyond the classroom. Reconstructionist Jewish education continues to be an experiential educational environment where, in addition to the formal study process, we continue to nurture learners as they explore, play with, grow into, and love Jewish life, practice, and culture. And, in today’s Jewish world with all the intersections and off ramps, that is the sacred hiddush that still echoes from Kaplan’s writing.
Although the hiddush remains powerful, how it is experienced has changed dramatically. What it means to participate in Jewish life is continually evolving just as our Jewish civilization itself is evolving. Kaplan’s world enjoyed a well-maintained expectation that people will come to the community to learn, whether in the context of a synagogue, JCC, or other community agency. Today, those boundaries of Jewish community are falling away. What remains is a center point of Jewish journeys that serve as a guiding light, calling people in. Through new websites like JewBelong, through social media pages and meet up groups that serve as meeting spaces and connectors, and through a new havurah movement that is happening outside of the organized Jewish communal structure, we are witnessing a massive shift in the Jewish landscape. And, although Kaplan’s vision remains sound and the metric remains valid, what it means to “participate” in Jewish life could not be more different than when Kaplan initially wrote his chapter on Jewish education 80 years ago. We still need to motivate people to engage in Jewish life. I wonder, however, if we still have a shared understanding of what that means.