What Should Young Jews Know - April 23, 2021

Earlier this week, our country watched as Derek Chauvin was convicted on all three charges in the death of George Floyd, including second- and third-degree murder. This was an initial step toward accountability, justice, and healing.
We echo the sentiment expressed by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas: “While no guilty verdict can bring George Floyd back or make his family and friends fully whole for their loss or unwind the trauma inflicted on the broader African American community, we hope that today’s decision brings some measure of justice, healing, and peace to his loved ones and for all Minnesotans.” (Click here to read their statement.)
Police violence, lack of accountability, and racism existed long before police killed George Floyd and continue to persist today. This trauma and violence will continue unless we reimagine public safety and follow through on real, structural changes.
I remember in the late 1980s purchasing E.D. Hirsch’s book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to KnowProfessor Hirsch argued that children in the United States were being deprived of the basic knowledge that would enable them to function in contemporary society. (There are certainly criticisms of the book based on racial/ethnic bias and gender.) They lack cultural literacy: a grasp of background information that writers and speakers assume their audience already has. The book created a nationwide debate on educational standards.
Two weeks ago, the Jewish Paideia Project released something similarly challenging. Dr. Benjamin Jacobs of George Washington University and Dr. Barry Chazan of the Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership developed an approach to enrich Jewish knowledge, values, sensibilities, and commitments among American Jews ages 5-18. The authors ask, “How do we foster Jewish life in an open society? What initiates Jewish youth on a Jewish educational journey today and what can keep them on that journey? Jewish education for whom, by whom, where, when, with what, how, and, above all for what?
They propose in their manuscript 18 dimensions of Jewish life that educational programs for Jewish youth can aspire to in their curriculum planning and outcomes. They are trying to respond to the question of how we can prepare the next generation of Jewish youth for effective adult citizenship and participation in an ever-changing North American Jewish community and civilization.
Answering this question entails, for starters, a vision of Jewish education that can be transformed into a "clear and concise set of cross-cutting, identifiable, measurable, attainable educational outcomes for Jewish educational venues." The authors of the report believe the “vision of Jewish education is to enable Jewish youth, and ultimately Jews of all ages, to understand and appreciate the core ideas, values, and practices of Jewish civilization, so that these ideas, values, and practices may serve as resources in their lives as Jews, Americans, and human beings.” In essence, what Jewish knowledge is of most worth, and how do learners acquire it?
The authors created a list of 18 Jewish things they feel young Jews should know, care about, and be able to do by the age of 18. Overall, their conception of Jewish education goes beyond the mere acquisition of factual knowledge. Equally important, in their view, are tasks of understanding, evaluating, and relating to Jewish issues for the sake of the individual and the community. The essential elements of Jewish civilization, such as those articulated in this framework, are open to a range of interpretations. Children need to learn about skills, values, attitudes, and practices that enable them to make meaning of contemporary Jewish life.
The authors do not purport to determine who the ideal Jew is, nor does adherence to the 18 ideas guarantee a certain set of educational outcomes. Rather, the purpose is to provide a “tool kit” to support effective efforts in Jewish education. It also makes a statement about the kinds of qualities we imagine can support active and effective participation in a thriving, vibrant American Jewish community in the future.
  • Feel part of a chain of Jewish tradition, as both recipients and co-creators
  • Feel connected to Jews around the world
  • Have Jewish friends
  • Engage with Jewish role models and personalities
  • Participate in the kehilla (Jewish community)
  • Regard Judaism as a relevant source of wisdom for their questions about life and its meaning
  • Appreciate tikkun olam (repairing the world) as a core Jewish value, and perform acts of gemilut chasadim (giving of loving-kindness).
  • Care about and connect with Israel
  • Read and interpret sacred and historical texts, and be able to discern Jewish core narratives (stories, sagas, events) and values within them
  • Recognize the role wrestling with God has played in Jewish life
  • Open themselves up to divinity through theology, prayer, study, or other spiritual practices
  • Understand the mutual influence of Jewish and broader culture on each other and on contemporary Jews
  • Be able to identify critical issues facing American Jewry, and be motivated to act on them
  • Understand the meanings and performance of Jewish mitzvot
  • Participate in various Jewish rituals, customs, holidays, and lifecycle events, and appreciate their history and meaning
  • Comprehend and utilize Hebrew words and other Jewish terminology
  • Partake in Jewish culinary traditions
  • Experience Jewish arts and culture
I am not a Jewish educator, but these are interesting thoughts. According to the authors, the ideally educated American Jewish youth is "rooted in Jewish life, mindful of Jewish heritage, faithful to Jewish ethics, and involved in the progress of Jewish civilization, while also being committed to the responsibilities of democratic citizenship and open to understanding the backgrounds, yearnings, and needs of others."
Thoughts? Reactions? What is missing? What would you change?
Shabbat shalom.
Marc N. Blattner
President and CEO


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