11 November 2011
14 Chesvan 5772
I was humbled and honored this week to travel to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) in Denver, CO, to receive the new Pomegranate Prize from The Covenant Foundation. I deeply appreciate the meaningful and supportive responses that I have received from so many of you, and it is truly a joy for me to learn and grow as an educator and a leader in this remarkable school community.
As part of the application process for this prize, I was asked to write three essays. One of the essays touched on my vision of Jewish education, and I want to share the Foundation’s question and my answer with you, for they illustrate the kind of education we strive for at Gann.
Some leaders in the field of education talk about “urgent education.” How would you interpret urgent education and what does that have to do with Jewish education?
High school students love to ask, “Why do we need to know this?” Some teachers find this disrespectful. In many classrooms and educational settings, when teachers are asked, “Will this be on the test?” or “What does this have to do with my life?” the teachers resent or cannot answer the questions. In fact, these are the questions educators need to answer for their students everyday.
“Urgent education” calls to mind for me the images of fire and water so often associated with Torah learning in the Jewish tradition. Our rabbis envisioned an urgent thirst for Torah for the life-giving force of its content and the experience of learning it. When God first spoke to Moses, it was from the burning bush. When God spoke again at Sinai, the mountain was ablaze. We read stories of rabbis who, when they learned Torah, had fire flashing around them. To learn in our tradition is to be in the presence of the Divine, and anyone who has had a truly inspiring and transformational learning experience knows what it feels like to be intellectually, spiritually, emotionally “on fire.” Urgent education sets the mind and the heart on fire; it quenches the learner’s thirst for indispensable knowledge, skills, and experiences.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in God in Search of Man, “In the process of thinking, an answer without a question is devoid of life. It may enter the mind; it will not penetrate the soul. It may become part of one’s knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force.” It is an educator’s responsibility both to generate and to tap into students’ curiosity and then to inspire and empower them to explore and address their authentic questions.
Gaps between our 3,000 year old Jewish tradition and the lives of contemporary Jews can make the culture, values, and worldview of Judaism inaccessible and irrelevant. Jewish educators need to make our “ancient tradition” relevant, compelling, and inspiring for Jews today. At the same time, in a society where education is so driven by college, test scores, and external notions of success, Jewish education is rich with meaning and purpose. The Torah was given to our people not merely to prepare us for college but also to prepare us for lives of meaning and responsibility. It is the holy task of Jewish educators to unleash the built-in Sinaitic urgency of our tradition and of our students.
Rabbi Marc Baker