Religious Purposefulness on the High Holy Days
By: Rabbi Steven M. Brown, Ed.D
As we approach 5773, I look forward to the climax of our davening: the awesome U’netane Tokef. For me the magnificent liturgical poetry, the religious message that we are not in charge, and that we share so much as a people, move me to tears each year at its recitation. Understanding that the prayer is a metaphor about how complicated, unpredictable, and tenuous our existence is and how faith in a Transcendent Source of Blessing can sustain us is at the heart of the entire High Holiday experience. These lessons deeply resonate for me as a new program officer here at AVI CHAI, where it is religious purposefulness as well as Jewish literacy and peoplehood with Israel at the center that frames our aspirations and projects. I am particularly interested in furthering our understanding of what religious purposefulness looks like in our schools and how we can enhance our work in this area.
Our aspiration as a Foundation is that Jewish youth are guided by Jewish values and mitzvot that are integrated into all aspects of their lives, and that they become adults committed to lifelong Jewish intellectual and spiritual growth. They will take responsibility for transmitting their Jewish heritage to future generations, engaging in and/or leading the Jewish community and bringing a Jewish voice and Jewish values into the discourse of humankind.
As we celebrate the New Year and reconnect with who we are and what we value most as Jews, I believe a renewed commitment to religious purposefulness in our schools seeks to link cognitive and emotional behavior. Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin, the long-serving head of Sinai Akiba Academy in Los Angeles, now retired, speaks about this holistic approach to religious education. He calls it a “type of learning that influences life choices, moral activity, and spiritual sensitivity, is both affective and cognitive, and a teacher seeking such influence on a student’s life must therefore give attention to the ways in which the student’s affective and cognitive experience are coupled.” The center of Scheindlin’s idea “is to see the world aided by an awareness of transcendence, to include the vision of others and of the Other in one’s own appraisal of the world. The student is able to apply his or her understanding of Torah to everyday life, evaluate experience based on those understandings and synthesizes them fully.” (Journal of Jewish Education 74:343-363, 2008, p. 356) In other words, religious purposefulness is a day school or Jewish summer camp’s enactment of its basic Jewish mission and vision in its day-to-day formal and informal life. It involves conscious efforts to imbue students with Jewish values, modes of observance, and the performance of mitzvot so they can make personal meaning and decisions in their own lives.
Day schools have been fairly successful in the cognitive domain, seeing student learning accomplishments of high order in Jewish studies and Hebrew language. But I raise some questions:
- How can we create Jewish day schools or summer camps which truly affect students’ commitments to seeing the world through Jewish lenses (in whatever denominational form), making Jewish life and practice part of their daily lives now and in the future?
- If you are connected to a Jewish day school or summer camp, what are examples of religious purposefulness that you can see and can describe in your school or camp?
- What are the biggest challenges in cultivating religious engagement and purposefulness in the Jewish educational context you know best?
To begin to answer these questions, we plan to embark on a series featuring vignettes of religious purposefulness written by colleagues in the day school field. If you are interested in contributing such a vignette, please use this template to frame your up to two-page narrative. We will be sure to invite your comments and responses in order to begin what we hope will be a sustained conversation that will enable us all to reflect and improve upon the practices of religious purposefulness in our schools.
I look forward to a fruitful conversation about this issue.
Dr. Steven M. Brown is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation