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Jewish Education: Mission, Legacy, and the Question of Jewish Identity

The mission of Jewish education is to invite young Jews to explore, empower and inspire
Dr. Bernie Steinberg, is a senior scholar at Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Formerly President and Director of Harvard Hillel, Bernie has also taught at the Harvard Kennedy School and numerous North American colleges. He was a founding Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and serves on the faculty of the Wexner Foundation. A recipient of the prestigious Covenant Award, Bernie is a bridge builder whose life’s work is devoted to dialogic interaction between

This article originally appeared in Issue #12 of Think: The Lola Stein Institute Journal. Click here to view the complete publication.


What is the mission of Jewish education? This basic question is as elusive as it is fundamental. And vital. For mission is the ultimate purpose, the "why" an institution exists, not the "how" it functions. Great organizations are driven by large purposes that transcend immediate needs and goals. In the words of Peter M. Senge, distinguished professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, "being true to our purpose – has the greatest intrinsic significance" to the leader. "All the rest are means to the end… The ability to focus on ultimate, intrinsic desires, not only on secondary goals" is the mark of a mission-driven institution.

Many young Jews settle for a thin Jewish identity, not by actual choice, but by default.

Often immediate goals that appear self-evident require further thought. For instance, affiliation with the Jewish community might seem the obvious purpose of Jewish education, yet unless we reflect on the larger meaning of the community, we can’t build educational institutions that actually support that goal. It is noteworthy that when the pre-eminent Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig envisioned the Lehrhaus, his pioneering school of adult education in Frankfurt, he framed its mission by raising the big question: "What, then, holds or has held us together since the dawn of emancipation? In what does the community of our contemporary life show itself, that community which alone can lead from the past to a living future?"

The crafting of curriculum, design of pedagogic methods, and selection of faculty of the Lehrhaus directly followed from Rosenzweig’s answer to that large question.

Great Jewish educational institutions need to answer questions of transcendent purpose in order to frame and inform the daily work of education.

What are the big questions of Jewish life in the 21st century to which Jewish education is a vital response? How do we understand the existential condition and questions of today’s students?

And of critical importance: What is the content of and what is our approach to the Jewish legacy – the inherited collective experience of the Jewish people as articulated in the ideas, sources, norms, and narratives of the Jewish people from ancient times to the present?


One way or another, most Jewish educational institutions regard the strengthening of Jewish identity as a primary goal. The nagging question remains: What is actually meant by the term? For "Jewish identity" functions as a sort Rorschach test, a vague image that can mean all the things to all people. Often Jewish identity is understood as Jewish pride; or self-assertion in response to anti-Semitism; or simply "feeling good" about being Jewish. In these visceral meanings, it is not clear if there is, or what is, the core of Jewish identity. What is the inner consciousness that infuses the heart and mind of the living young Jew? and equally, it is not clear, if or how, the Jewish legacy has anything to contribute to the intellectual, psychological, moral, or spiritual growth of young Jews.

Sometimes the strengthening of Jewish identity is associated with "Jewish continuity." In this sense, Jewish identity means loyalty or conformity to what was. As a result, the educational model becomes the transmission of the Jewish legacy as a fixed entity, as a given. Often, motivated by the desire to measure concrete outcomes, Jewish identity is reduced to narrow behavioural terms, such as ritual observance, marriage choices, and institutional memberships.


The above approaches to Jewish identity, whatever their validity, are simply too piecemeal, simplistic, or reductionist to undergird and inspire Jewish education. For Jewish identity is a complex of psychological, sociological, and philosophic factors that reflect the modern (and post-modern) condition of the Jewish people.

Understood in these comprehensive terms, Jewish identity is a dilemma, a challenge, and an opportunity of living between worlds – the worlds of Jewish tradition and modern culture. Consequently, Jewish identity is constituted by substantive tensions: between competing world views and conflicting values, and, most critical, Jewish identity raises fundamental questions, such as: Why choose to be Jewish?

For these reasons, Jewish education must address Jewish identity, not as a technical problem with clear-cut answers and mechanical solutions, but as an adaptive question: How must we connect Jewish learning with contemporary living? How do we equip young Jews to flourish in a complex, rapidly changing, and uncertain world in which there are competing claims of value and meaning, for which, in Rosenzweig’s words, "the one recipe alone… is to have no recipes."

This adoptive dilemma also presents a growth opportunity. For living in two worlds can provide wisdom and insights, valuable perspectives which can serve as correctives to the dogmatic and parochial thinking that inevitably results whenever we inhabit a single or a dominating universe or discourse. David Hartman puts this well:

A living Jewish tradition can provide a person with a critical perspective on contemporary social reality by pointing to alternative possibilities and by providing a sense of distance that enables one to evaluate current beliefs and practices… It thus counteracts the ideological prejudice of modernity that equates "the now" with "the good," and the "latest" with the important and valuable.


There are three defining aspects of Jewish identity which can inform the exploration of Jewish legacy: choice, memory and purpose. In an increasingly pluralistic, relativistic, global world, young Jews are barraged with a plethora of values and life options. They must sort out and distinguish the Jewish and non-Jewish elements within contemporary culture and within themselves. More challenging, they must critically evaluate each element and determine which Jewish values overlap, which complement and enrich, and which contradict contemporary values. Most important, they need to determine for themselves what makes sense and what matters to them.

Uncritical loyalty to the Jewish past will not compel the present generation of young Jews. On the other hand, mindless conformity to the cultural fads of the moment, whether moral or intellectual, can cheat young Jews out of precious resources that can help them to grow and flourish as human beings and to cultivate a rich, purposeful life.

Yet how can young Jews choose to be Jewish when they are confused about the substantive content of Jewishness and what it might offer? How can they freely choose, when immersed in a contemporary non-Jewish world in which assumptions and values – whether secular or Christian – are so deeply embedded that they feel self-evident, while fundamental Jewish ideas, beliefs, and values feel vague, remote, inaccessible, as though locked behind closed doors?

If choice defines Jewish identity, then Jewish education needs to level the playing field: it needs to create a conversation between the Jewish legacy and Western values, an unapologetic, nuanced, and critical conversation. And it must give young Jews the language and tools to participate fully in that conversation. It must, in other words, provide real options. Many young Jews settle for a thin Jewish identity, not by actual choice but by default.

Choice is dependent on a second defining aspect of Jewish identity: memory. Memory is necessary for the identity of all people. I know who I am because, in spite of changes throughout my life, my memories provide continuity from childhood to present self-awareness. A person with amnesia, we say, suffers a loss of identity.

Just as individual identity requires personal memories, Jewish identity is dependent on the collective memories of the Jewish people.

In the Jewish legacy, the imperative to remember is not a neutral cognitive action. As biblical scholar Nahum Sarna points out:

The stern z-k-r (remember) does not connote mere intellectual activity, a simple recall or retrieval of information stored away somewhere in the cells of the brain… Hebrew z-k-r is better rendered "to be mindful," and this includes awareness and paying heed. To be mindful implies involvement. The attitude is subjective and relational. There is concern, engagement, and responsibility. This is why the stern z-k-r is frequently accompanied by a verb of action…

The Jewish imperative to remember is an invitation to embark on a personal journey in time and space. Jewish collective memory reflects the accumulated experience of the ancient/contemporary people who have lived around the world in extremely diverse conditions. Jewish identity is enriched by memories which extend further back in time – beyond our lives, and beyond even the lives of our grandparents. Jewish collective memories evoke images and stories of the Jews in the desert, in Spain, India, and Italy; in situations of affluence and poverty; in circumstances of heroism and humiliation.

Collective Jewish memory thus deepens personal Jewish consciousness, broadens Jewish horizons, and serves as a corrective to the parochialism of modern culture, and thereby transforms the identity of the modern Jew. No longer locked into the isolation of a radically individualistic self-understanding, he sees himself as part of a larger story, to which he is connected, to which he shares concern, to which he feels a sense of responsibility.

Jewish moral values and aspirations are a third defining feature of Jewish identity. This approach to Jewish identity reflects a philosophic conception that links identity to moral value and aspiration. Charles Taylor writes in his magisterial work, Sources of The Self: The Making of Modern Identity: "Who am I? But this can’t be necessarily answered by giving name and genealogy. What does answer this question is an understanding of what is of crucial importance to us. To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand."

Likewise, the question of Jewish identity cannot be adequately answered by appeals to ethnic loyalty, or defined by the accident of birth, i.e., I am a Jew because I was born a Jew. Rather, to know who I am as a Jew means to know where I stand and who I aspire to become as a human being through the lens of Jewish values and beliefs.

For a young Jew to know where she stands means that she must have a firm sense of grounding; that she must have a rich moral language to discover, shape, and articulate her values; that she must envision a picture of the world, in which these values make sense, add up, cohere, lead to, and express a life of purpose.

In the contemporary world, where there is a profusion of views, a profound skepticism about the very possibility that values have any "objective" or real meaning, and where possibilities of larger purpose are often cynically denied, the challenge and opportunity for Jews to discover and shape who they are and who they aspire to become is far from automatic. Young Jews need (and deserve the support of a model of Jewish education that actively explores the values and substantive content of the Jewish legacy, that is intellectually plausible and emotionally resonant.

Havruta Learning: A Traditional Pedagogy for Contemporary Reality

To this end, personal engagement with Jewish sources is a primary way to enable Jewish choice, enrich Jewish memory, and inspire Jewish purpose. The most effective pedagogy of engagement is through traditional havruta study (reading and discussing sources in pairs) adapted to the contemporary reality of the student. The root meaning of the word havruta means to connect, to befriend, which suggests that havruta learning is interactive, relational, and personal.

Havruta learning should be integrated with modern disciplines so that students can sharpen their capacity for critical thinking as well as to explore substantial differences and overlap between Jewish and Western values.

What, then, might be the Mission of Jewish Education in the 21st Century?

To invite young Jews to explore the relevance of Jewish legacy to their personal lives through engaged conversation with the big ideas, values, and sources of Western culture; to empower them to discover and shape who they are and who they aspire to become; and to inspire them to see themselves as actors within the drama of the Jews people, as the authors who are writing the next act.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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