Thursday, May 10, 2018

Learning to Teach Torah in the Digital Age

I hear it all the time. Hebrew School has changed so drastically over the past several decades. This is true. It seems most Jewish kids don't go to Hebrew School to learn anything... they go so they can simply have their bar or bat mitzvah. It's a means to an end.

From the educator's point of view, this means that teaching Jewish youth isn’t as straightforward as it used to be. With social norms changing at light speed, it can be difficult to make any heritage relevant to young people today, and Judaism is no different. The Torah -- the Hebrew Bible -- has been the cornerstone of Jewish thought for thousands of years, yet even this most essential of Jewish texts poses challenges for the Hebrew school teacher. Educators must offer articulate and convincing answers as to the questions raised by the Torah.

Jewish studies, even in informal education, all revolve around Jewish values, which have their roots in philosophy and ethical codes that are ancient in origin. Jewish thought stretches back thousands of years, connecting past and present. Educators helping young people develop their Jewish identity are effectively asked to bridge the gap between antiquity and modern society and to instill in them an appreciation of that heritage not only in some abstract, historical sense but as an important part of their lives.

Unfortunately, there are few degree programs in American universities addressing this need, leaving many Jewish educators without the specialized knowledge and skills required for both formal and informal Jewish studies. The educational and professional background common for many educators is a mixture of general education degrees along with a smattering of theology or Jewish philosophy.  Neither properly prepares teachers for the special demands of Jewish education.

Hebrew University's Melton Centre for Jewish Education

Some alternatives, however, are emerging to fill the gap. The Hebrew University’s Melton Centre for Jewish Education, one of the most prestigious schools for Jewish studies and education, has opened its doors to English-speaking educators with a new 1-year distance learning M.A. degree program for overseas students. Specially designed for those working in Jewish education – either formal or informal – the new Melton graduate degree track focuses on the unique kinds of issues Jewish educators face today, like teaching the Hebrew Bible and other traditional sources to children who aren’t strongly connected to their heritage. How to broach sensitive topics, like the American-Jewish relationship with Israel and Zionism, is another special feature of the program.

Most important, however, is the education innovation (“edu-vation” for short) component.  The Jewish community in the diaspora is changing, and with its growing diversity, there are more diverse needs. The Melton Centre’s Jewish Edu-vation instruction gives Jewish educators the tools and hands-on experience they need to create customized programs to serve the local Jewish community.  That means not only being flexible and versatile, but knowing how to adapt, with an ability to learn from the community and integrate innovative solutions satisfying local needs – twitter posts included.
This is crucial in a time when the one-size-fits-all approach increasingly fails to account for differences between communities in factors like age demographics and religious denomination, intermarriage rates and levels of familiarity with traditional Judaism. In many cases, this ability to innovate could mean the difference between success and failure to make an impact.

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