On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Joining the Conversation of Torah” Amy Wallk Katz

I very much loved the way Chancellor Eisen framed the importance of learning for Conservative Jews. He bases his writing on important historical texts of our movement. As an experienced educator and congregational rabbi, I took this opportunity to complement Chancellor’s Eisen’s text by offering a template for thinking about education in our congregations.

In teaching Judaism to the vast majority of my congregants, both adults and children, I base my instruction on three related areas of need: skills, knowledge and connection. Everything we do at the shul is intended to teach Jewish skills, deepen knowledge of Jewish roots, and promote connection with the Jewish community in meaningful and relevant ways.

Skills

The skills approach assumes that individuals with limited backgrounds have little affinity for, or understanding of, Jewish practice and feel uncomfortable within the Jewish community. The way to address this problem is to help them achieve Jewish competency.

The curriculum for this approach focuses on the practical areas of Jewish life and the teacher’s role is to teach skills related to the practice of Mitzvoth and Jewish customs. This is done through demonstrations, role modeling and practice. Success is determined by the learner’s ability to implement acquired skills. The hope is that once the learner gains confidence, s/he will integrate more comfortably into the Jewish community

Knowledge

The knowledge approach assumes that many of my congregants feel disconnected, or possibly alienated, because they do not have a nuanced understanding of Judaism. Their knowledge of Jewish holidays, texts, values and history is superficial at best.

Many congregants who are often experts in secular areas of knowledge feel embarrassed by their lack of Jewish learning. They do not understand the logic of the tradition, cannot distinguish between the major and the minor, and feel ill-equipped to engage in a rigorous conversation about Judaism.

The curriculum for this approach is text based. And the focus is Jewish knowledge. I believe it is important for my congregants to know how our understanding and relationship to God has changed over the years and how great scholars like Rashi, Maimonides, Spinoza and Heschel have influenced Jewish thought. Similarly, I want my congregants to recognize we practice rabbinic Judaism, not biblical Judaism. In some instances it is appropriate to use primary sources (Mishnah, Talmud, Siddur—although always with a translation) and in some instances I use secondary sources (history books or books written about a particular subject). The main point is that I always rely on texts because I want my students to become facile with all kinds of Jewish texts.

Success in this approach is determined by what the student understands and his/her motivation to continue to study Jewish sources. Some questions I would pose to my students would be, “Do you understand the Jewish conversation which is taking place on a particular issue and can you contribute to this conversation?” “How do we as Conservative Jews think about and analyze texts?”

Connection

The connection approach sees as a major source of alienation that Judaism is not personally meaningful or relevant for many Jews. Many members of my congregation are unmoved during services, finding no meaning in the ritual and/or liturgy. Traditional texts and practices do not speak to them. We at the synagogue must create new kinds of Jewish experiences that will promote connection and meaning.

One way to help congregants find meaning is by teaching what our sacred texts have to say about important topics which are relevant to the lives of the participants. This approach is easily identifiable in the course topics, which include lessons either on popular topical issues or those of personal significance.

This curriculum is student-driven; it is the students’ world that provides the framework for the subject matter. For example, a course on sacred aging might speak to the lives of the Baby Boomers and empty nesters in my congregation. Some congregants are dealing with elderly parents and others find themselves or their spouses struggling with serious health issues. Similarly, teen-agers might like to learn about Judaism’s perspective on body piercings or tattoos.

Another way to help congregants find meaning is to create alternative experiences. If worship in the traditional sanctuary service leaves congregants untouched or uninspired, then new kinds of experiences need to be introduced. Torah yoga, meditation, and chanting are possibilities. As I try to create moments of connection, I recognize that I must meet my congregants where they are at a given time in their lives.

Conclusion

Ideally, learning opportunities in our congregations will focus on skills, knowledge and connection. In order to be a fully functioning, self-reliant member of the Jewish community, one should feel competent, knowledgeable and connected.