• 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.

Foundations of Our Kaplanian Educational Visioning Project

It is easy on the tongue, perhaps pleasing to the ear and inviting to the mind: The reader can even say it with us twice: A 21st Century Kaplanian Vision for Jewish education.

A 21st Century Kaplanian vision for Jewish education. But wait! The Talmud wisely cautions that we should always “let our ear listen to what our mouth has said.” 

If we are doing our best work as Jewish educators we must be willing to problematize our own constructions. 

So we fruitfully query ourselves: Why a “vision”? Why “Kaplanian”? and Why “21st century?”

 

Why a VISION of Jewish education?

Like the wheels on the bus, it is easy enough for Jewish education to keep replicating its own regularities and structures (e.g. supplemental, synagogue based, pedagogic model of transmitting content). This perhaps is the default mode of all education which has a “grammar” (Cuban and Tyak) and syntax which leads to the reassertion of these regularities even in the wake of new educational visions and innovations. Jonathan Krasner and Benjamin Jacobs suggested the same in regard to Jewish education at the 2019 conference on Research on Jewish Education in Chicago.

Yet, vision is critical.  We ought not to let inertia be the winner in this struggle for educational growth and transformation. One is reminded here of Buber’s retelling of a Hasidic tale of a master near death. The Rebbe with disciples near is having a dream rooted in the metaphor that life is like a wheel with many spokes and a central hub. His disciples are actually detaching the spokes from the hub. The Rebbe startles himself up and yells to his disciples “We must not let this come to pass.”

By analogy, though we are desparately in need of innovations that work with the individual spokes of the Jewish education wheel(teachers, subject matter, school, camp etc), we also need to hold the center of a complete vision that integrates those spokes of innovation.

 

Why a KAPLANIAN Vision?

There are three reasons why Kaplan’s vision of Jewish education continues to inform and inspire:

#1 There is a shlemut (wholeness) to Kaplan’s educational vision. The five essential criteria for a Jewish education in his 1934 chapter in Judaism as a Civilization is still useful (so affirms a group of 30 rabbis and educators who re-engaged with this chapter) in keeping our eye on the prize in its totality. While innovation sometimes requires thinking big and acting small (a mantra of the Mandel Foundation) it is critical that we measure our innovations in particular arenas against the matrix of our vision as a whole.

#2 Another virtue of the Kaplanian approach to Jewish education is that Kaplan was in many ways prophetic. Many issues that he named were elusive or even impossible goals for educators of his generation. Yet, they remain essential challenges to educators today who perhaps are better positioned in terms of cumulative wisdom gleaned from the field of Jewish education and a much better resources Jewish community to creatively respond to those challenges. 

#3 There is a final, more theoretical value of this Kaplanian vision. A few years ago, Dr Eric Caplan, a Reconstructionist scholar of liturgy, education, and social justice in North American Jewish life, and I had an opportunity to compare and contrast the educational vision of Mordecai Kaplan and Michael Rosenak.  We concluded with an appreciation that both these thinkers possessed the rare gift of “triple think.” They equally immerse themselves in thinking about the nature of Judaism, the nature of education, and the nature of Jewish education. The confluence of all three streams in a river of Jewish educational thought is quite rare and precious.  

 

Why a 21st CENTURY Kaplanian Vision of Jewish Education?

Famously, Rav Kook observes that our task in life is to “make the old new, and the new holy.” This means renewing a Kaplanian vision to address the needs of a 21st century Jewish people. While many of Kaplan’s insights stand well the test of time (see Kaplan Gems section of this project) there are other constructs that no longer perform the function of generating educational kedusha (holiness). As one participant in our process observes the key question is not what Kaplan said but what Kaplan might say if he were addressing the current needs of the Jewish people.  

Further we believe deeply that the process of generating the vision and living it is communal and multi-vocal. Indeed, it evolves out of conversation, critique, and dialogue. This is why we include so much commentary around the core vision (commentary section of vision) and also provide tools for educators to contextualize the fruits of this vision within their own unique educational communities. Certainly it is why we establish the webpage and its resources with an invitation to add your voice and perspective.   

One final note: the multi-vocal nature of a Kaplanian dialogue ought to stretch way beyond Kaplan. Writing in 1948 and again in 1964, Kaplan imagined that the”truths” of the writers of his time about character and moral education would merge with the insights of Judaism in a way that was ultimately seamlessly. Similar we imagine a rich cross referencing of this 21st Century Kaplanian Vision for Jewish education with current research on technology and education, neuroscience, social and emotional intelligence, the spiritual beginnings of life in young children, and other non-Jewish insights into the educational process. 

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