TCI - Adam Gaynor, Executive Director at The Curriculum Initiative (TCI)

How would you describe your general philosophy of Jewish education?

There are a number of components to this. First of all, we take a holistic, student-centered and developmental approach. The traditional paradigm in Jewish Education has been a "drink your milk" approach. Jewish education has been acting like we need to fill up kids with as much "Jewish" as we can by the time they are 13 so they have the strength to ward off all the great evils out there like anti-Semitism, intermarriage and assimilation. If they haven't received enough by a certain point, we'll have lost them. That model presumes that identity is a static process. It presumes that people go through fixed stages and ultimately achieve an identity that becomes immutable. Ultimately, what we've learned is that identity is much more fluid. It can change throughout the course of a lifetime. That's more of our approach. Consequently, we are much more interested in the process of learning than the specific content outcomes. I'd rather have students be able to critically think about what they're learning in their Jewish education then to dictate that if they don't know a certain amount of information by a certain time then we've wasted our time.

Jewishness alone is not a very meaningful outcome. What does Jewishness even mean? Living a more enriching and purposeful life is a great outcome. I believe the Jewish community, culture and wisdom are wonderful tools towards doing that. However, I don't think we've really made the case among families and teens that that's something we have.

Therefore, we work with teenagers and adolescents. We know from very clear research data that 78% of Jewish teens in the United States do not participate in any regular on-going Jewish education of any kind. Yet the standard model for Jewish education for many decades now has been an isolationist model. The majority of Jewish teens do not go to Jewish day school, supplementary school, or Jewish camps. They have very diverse and multi-cultural peer groups that include lots and lots of non-Jews. It is in these peer groups that teens try to separate from parents, explore their identities, and figure out who they are. That social environment is very important. If the paradigm is to isolate kids from their peer group, but the peer group is the paramount most important thing for teens' lives, and Jewish teens' peer groups are multi-cultural, then de facto Jewish teens are not going to get involved with Jewish education. The numbers continue to show that kids are just not compelled by Jewish learning. There's nothing compelling about being pulled away from your friends and having someone impose upon you a set of learning that doesn't relate to your immediate kind of passions and the issues that you wrestle with. Jewish education is largely voluntary. Definitely for families and even more so for teens. If we're not meeting the need in the market, I don't know what the point is. 

Our approach is to start where the teens are. We ask them what they are interested in learning, what their friendships are like, what their school community is like, and what their families are like without judgments or presumptions. We do not want to impose upon them a kind of paradigmatic stock-mind of formal Jewish learning. Therefore, we do a lot of needs-assessment and find out exactly those things.

Additionally, we meet kids where they spend most of their time: in school. That provides the widest array of entry points for Jewish learning. In school you can introduce Jewish content and methods in the classroom, student clubs, extracurricular activities, co-curricular programs like assemblies, school awareness days, and service learning trips. You can also work with the broadest cross-section of role models for teens: teachers, diversity directors, chaplains, deans, service learning coordinators and parents. By doing a needs-assessment and understanding what those environments are like and what teens are interested in, we then build Jewish content and methods around those interests into an emergent curriculum. In our case, we use Jewish wisdom, learning, and experiences as lenses through which to explore and wrestle with kids' interests. It's through that that kids then begin to see the value in Jewish learning and they start to apply Jewish learning to different aspects of their lives. Jewish learning becomes a developmental process that can happen at any point and throughout the course of one's lifespan.

A key component of moving away from the isolationist paradigm is that Jewish learning, for us, is open to Jewish students, friends and allies. We do not isolate Jewish kids from their friends. If Jewishness is something to be done in isolation, then kids aren't going to do it. It's when their non-Jewish friends take an interest in the learning that often it opens up the door for the Jewish kids that are hesitant to do so as well.


What do you see as the primary goals of Jewish education and how, in general terms, can we best go about trying to achieve these goals?

Maimonides in the Guide to the Perplexed writes that there are two purposes in Torah and Jewish learning. One is tikkun hanefesh (repairing the soul) and tikkun hagoof (repairing the body). By "goof" he wasn't talking about the physical body but more the body politic, the community, city, nation. In order to live a more enriching life, to achieve tikkun hanefesh, one has to attend to everything else in tikkun hagoof: the relationships between people. I really am a firm believer in the fact that Jewishness is not an outcome. The outcome of Jewish learning is to lead a more meaningful and enriching life. A life of purpose. Jewish wisdom, in my estimation, becomes the lens, technology, or process through which we can lead a more purposeful, enriching, fulfilling life. Beyond that, the rest is water under the bridge.

The following are articles that articulate TCI's program and philosophy.  Please download them to learn more.

icon TCI - Educational Principles (99.95 kB)
icon TCI - Jewish Students, Friends, and Allies (222.4 kB)
icon TCI - Multicultural Schools, Multicultural Theory and Practice (155.28 kB)
icon TCI - Renewed Vision and Approach to Jewish Content (173.7 kB)
icon TCI - Student Leadership (649.96 kB)
icon TCI Resource - Classroom Hevruta Worksheet (133.42 kB)
icon TCI Resource - School Assessment Form (124.67 kB)
icon TCI Resource - Student Empowerment Toolkit; Peer Engagement Module (223.85 kB)
icon TCI Resource - TConnect Student Empowerment Grant Application (204.41 kB)

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