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Authenticity & Relevance | The Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood

    The Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood

    Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983) was one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. We believe that his thought may be even more important in the 21st century.

    Authenticity & Relevance



    From a Kaplanian-Deweyan point of view, when we create content we are also creating the tools of life-long learning. At our best, the specific content is widely applicable to all arenas of Jewish and human living. In this section, Rabbi Ariann Weitzman takes us inside a thought process we would do well to frequently replicate as we generate content for our curricula.

    The Individual Child

    No whit less important than reckoning with the perpetuation of Jewish life and culture is it to reckon with the well-being and growth of the individual child. The Jewish educative process must start with the actual experiences of the child as he lives them in the present, and lead him constantly so to reorganize and reinterpret his experience that he comes to identify his own good with the good of society. To achieve this end the child must be given increasing control over his own experience so that he will himself be able to shape and direct it toward aims freely and intelligently chosen.

    – Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization, page 486. 

    Jewish cultures have grown out of actual needs combined with engagement with sacred material and ritual. Jewish education must be constructive on all levels – considering the actual needs Jewish life fulfills for the child and the family. Only then is there any internal motivation to pursue learning. The other side of this coin is that Jewish life is about sanctifying life – living a life infused with meaning and a sense of purpose. The mechanisms and tools of Jewish life can and should serve to improve the sense of well-being enjoyed by its practitioners. One meaningful measure of the success of Jewish education is its ability to foster a sense of well-being and happiness in its students, and a growing sense of connection to and purpose in the world outside herself.

    Many of the foundational values of rabbinic Jewish life are de-emphasized in current models of Jewish schooling, but they are celebrated in other “extracurricular” activities.* For example, the pursuit of discipline, whether the discipline of routine prayer, blessing practice, and Torah study, the discipline of mussar, or of Jewish meditation, the discipline of giving tzedakah or observing Shabbat, is fundamental to a sense of well-being, safety, and intellectual and centralized spiritual growth. This value is celebrated in every karate dojo our kids attend on Tuesdays, but then de-emphasized when children come to a congregational education program on Wednesdays.

    To that end, one vision I hold of Jewish education includes a program built around cultivating exactly those qualities which gave birth to and sustained Jewish culture over millennia: discipline; respect; piety; acts of love; tzedakah; the capacity to argue respectfully; working toward the repair of the world.

    I envision these qualities being both directly taught and practiced as well as providing the general aura in which other content is studied.

    This foundation allows openings for innovative content within a safe framework.

    1. In what ways is the “good” of the individual in alignment with the good of the community or society at large?  What aspects of Jewish life support the development of inward – outward well-being?
    2. What foundational practices, values, or disciplines of Judaism have strengthened your connection to Judaism or supported your well-being? Which of  these are relevant to the needs of today’s children?
    3. Do we trust learners to have control over the content of their learning and their experiences?  Why or why not? What developmental steps and educational scaffolding are necessary to make these kind of choices?

    * When I talk about foundational values, it is not to invoke a mythic, better past. My intent is to acknowledge the particular practices or heuristics that have been strengthened and have strengthened Jewish communities through periods of both calm and tumult.

    5 Replies to “Authenticity & Relevance”

      1. Lanie,

        This is Jeffrey. Quite a fine question. The answer is infinitely complex but also elegantly simple. On the simple side we teach them the skills that allow them to sustain their own Jewish celebration and learning

    1. I’m in the position of engaging “the individual child” who is not connected to the community. I see my role as providing a language and a path to connect this child to the community.

      1. Meryl thanks for pointing this out. I have merely transposed an important reflection of Kaplan’s about the importance of treating the child as a unique individual……Jeffrey

        No whit less important than reckoning with the perpetuation of Jewish life and culture is it to reckon with the well-being and growth of the individual child. The Jewish educative process must start with the actual experiences of the child as he lives thm in the present, and lead him constantly so to reorganize and reinterpret his experience that he comes to identify his own good with the good of society. To achieve this end the child must be given increasing control over his own experience so that he will himself be able to shape and direct it toward alms freely and intelligently chosen.

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    The Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood

    1574 Ashland Avenue, Evanston, IL 60201
    Phone: 847-492-5200