Jewish Education for Now

by Susie Chalom

Being a parent of a teen today is tougher than ever. Since October 7, it’s hard to turn on the news without hearing about antisemitic incidents or attacks on Israel. As we prepare our kids for the world and college, what can we do?

The Jewish answer is and has always been: education. We must strengthen our children’s knowledge of their heritage, deepen their faith in the Jewish people and solidify their trust, their knowledge, and confidence in who we are as a people.

People today, our teens and college students among them, are learning about an “Israel” and a “Judaism” that only exists on their smartphone screens.

But our story does not fit on a small or a big screen. Our history is not 76 years old; our story is ancient, going back millennia. Our children deserve the wisdom and resilience of their collective Jewish legacy. We need to envision what the next generation of American Jews must know, understand and value.

So, what does a strong Jewish education look like?

This past Monday night, TTSP’s Beit Midrash hosted Cohort XI of the Harry Kay Leadership Institute for a panel discussion on Jewish education. I want to address one of the questions we discussed in this newsletter and, hopefully, elicit some thoughts and reflections from you, our TTSP community.

The question was:

  • What does it mean to be an educated Jew in the 21st century? And has that expectation changed in the last 30 years?

Panelists said that to be an educated Jew today means understanding not only our religious texts and traditions but also our rich history and cultural contributions. It involves being informed about current events and how they impact Jews worldwide, understanding the diversity within the Jewish community, and engaging with both ancient teachings and modern interpretations.

In the past 30-40 years, the definition of an educated Jew has evolved. Previously, Jewish education focused heavily on religious observance and knowledge of the Torah and Talmud. Today, there is a broader emphasis on cultural literacy, spirituality, social justice, and global awareness. The digital age has also brought new challenges and opportunities for learning and engagement.

An educated Jew now needs to navigate complex identities, balance tradition with modernity, and be equipped to combat misinformation and antisemitism in the digital age. This holistic approach to Jewish education ensures that we stay rooted in our heritage while being active, informed members of the global community.

One of the major changes in our Jewish education complex is in way we teach about Israel.

Israel education used to have the simpler goal to “just love Israel,” and we didn’t deal with the pain or complexity. Now, we know that our students deserve more. Our kids can hold pain, love, and confusion at the same time. We need to respect their need to know — at an age-appropriate level — and to answer their questions and concerns with respect, even about the “hard stuff.”

They need to know our narrative so that when they hear misinformation, they are aware of it. A good Jewish education tells our story so that they can own it.

This coming year at Midrasha, we will be teaching about Zionism and Israel in a series of 4 mini courses that will be taught sequentially throughout the two semesters. We will also be offering a mini course of 4 Sundays in September about antisemitism.

Our goal is for our students to learn about Israel with rigor, thus developing “habits of the mind” around Israel. Habits of the mind are ways to understand difficult things when answers are not readily apparent. They learn to ask: “How do we know what we know” and “what’s the evidence?” They ask if there are other points of view. They look for cause and effect, for patterns and connections. They become discerning consumers of information.

We are teaching our students for now. Israel is part of a dynamic, ever-evolving reality that young people want to understand. When they know the true story they can stand proud in their relationship to and love of Israel, prepared to answer misinformed protesters with a solid foundation.

We must write our story. Because if we don’t, others will continue to write it for us.