Dr. Miriam Heller Stern
“Judaism is a problem to those who have to teach it, and what Jew is exempt from teaching it?” Mordecai Kaplan opened the 1934 preface to Judaism as a Civilization with an implicit charge: teaching Judaism is incumbent upon all Jews. My approach to Kaplanian living and learning is grounded in the responsibility to utilize teaching and learning as the vehicle for Jewish transformation and for the cultivation of a dynamic, creative future even in the face of challenge and uncertainty. I believe that Jewish education can be a tool for transforming society, if we approach the project of teaching and learning as cultivating thinkers and doers, as opposed to just knowers and believers. Kaplan’s charge in the chapter on Jewish Education in Judaism as a Civilization gives voice to my understanding of my mission as an educator of educators at HUC-JIR and in my broader work on Jewish creativity. When I teach about the aspirations of Jewish education, I often cite Kaplan’s claim that “To be trained as a Jew should mean to be given the habits that would help one function creatively in all of life’s situations.”
The Jewish Creative Sensibilities Project is Kaplanian in spirit and innovative in that it takes an organic, integrative approach to weaving together Jewish values, Jewish spiritual development and artistic practice into the design and curriculum of Jewish learning. There is attention to both individual and the social and relational. Integrating the arts into the life of the Jewish educator nourishes both the teacher and the student, and Kaplan was concerned about the quality of teaching and the readiness of teachers to participate in delivering an ambitious vision for Judaism through Jewish education. The artist-scholars of Beit HaYotzer each embody the Kaplanian spirit with their depth, curiosity, and desire to use theater, music and story to move people to deeper self-reflection and understanding. The content of the project – the creative sensibilities themselves – activate deep wellsprings of Jewish wisdom that can be continually renewed throughout a learner’s life.