A Message from the National Director: Jewish Sensibilities for Crossing New Waters - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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A Message from the National Director: Jewish Sensibilities for Crossing New Waters

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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Miriam Heller Stern, Ph.D., Associate Professor and National Director, School of Education

Dr. Miriam Heller Stern HeadshotOn Father’s Day Sunday, following Juneteenth and the five-year anniversary of the murder of nine worshippers at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel Church, my family and I joined administration, faculty, and students of HUC’s Skirball Campus in Los Angeles in attending the livestream service of Ward African Methodist Episcopal Church, a faith community a few blocks from HUC. Our Dean, Dr. Joshua Holo, offered greetings and a message of solidarity steeped in Christian and Jewish scripture that shared our conviction that black lives matter. I was moved by the message preached by Reverend John Cager III, senior pastor, who shared a lesson from the first verses of the Book of Joshua. Moses, he reminded us, led the Children of Israel across the Red Sea. The next generation, led by Joshua, had to cross the Jordan. One generation’s leadership does not complete the work; every generation faces a new struggle and musters its own courage and resilience to cross new uncertain waters. While these crossings involved both faith and physical battles, he encouraged listeners to take seriously “the battle of the mind,” the need to prepare ourselves mentally to deal with the challenges we face.

As Pastor Cager described this mindset, I thought about what Jewish educators can do now to help sustain learners and transform society. I have written and taught in recent years about the need to teach our learners to think creatively, and develop the Jewish creative sensibilities to build the society we want to see. Creativity is not merely a tool to relax or be entertained, a fun diversion. Creativity is often born of necessity, or an urgent need for change and solutions, or an expression of protest. This moment in history is demanding that we create new modes of engagement, new wells of empathy, new expressions when words fail us, new ways of coming together. Lech lecha (be bold), teshuva (turning and improving), tikva (optimism), and Elu v’elu (the divinity of difference) are among the guiding Jewish creative sensibilities for this time. We have to teach the next generation the mindsets that will enable them to cross their river, this river, even while we are still developing those mindsets ourselves.

How do we do it? Lately, I feel like my mind is in a tug of war between two kinds of questions: the tactical decisions of “how might we cross?” and the visionary questions of “what are we obligated to create on the other side?” It is easy to get caught up in the tactical: how will we optimize our online learning in the Fall? How will we deepen our relationships via digital connections? How will we redefine what it means to be together when we cannot gather in person? And what of the schedule? And screen fatigue? How will we protect health, wellness and safety for ourselves, families, neighbors, and communities? No doubt, I am working tirelessly with our faculty and administration on these tactical questions.

But what of the visionary questions? I am certain that our purpose is not simply to provide educators with the tools to manage institutions, supervise teachers and madrichim, or deliver a curriculum that will pass on our heritage in the form of knowledge and skills. We must prepare educational leaders for a more aspirational purpose: to weave learning communities of creative thinkers and culture makers, who will bring Jewish wisdom to the project of strengthening the self and society. While the desired outcomes may be communal and outward facing – protecting the dignity and safety of all through health-consciousness or anti-racism – these efforts require nuanced thought, reflection and inner work as a first step. For adults and children, this work requires self-knowledge, an awareness that we still have a lot to learn as humans, and the ability to dig deep to find the answers within.

That process is a hallmark of the learning in our graduate programs in Jewish education at HUC-JIR. This time of year, I have the joy of welcoming new cohorts of students to HUC and teaching another “Bible” of sorts, Parker Palmer’s “The Heart of a Teacher: Identity and Integrity in Teaching.” Two weeks ago I got acquainted with EMA Cohort 9, and this week, DeLeT Cohort 19, with this precious text as our guide. I always ask the new students to share a phrase from the passage that sparkles for them as a way of introducing who they are at the start of their journey. One of my favorites is this one:  

"We need to open a new frontier in our exploration of good teaching: the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. To chart that landscape fully, three important paths must be taken—intellectual, emotional, and spiritual—and none can be ignored. Reduce teaching to intellect and it becomes a cold abstraction; reduce it to emotions and it becomes narcissistic; reduce it to the spiritual and it loses its anchor to the world. Intellect, emotion, and spirit depend on each other for wholeness. They are interwoven in the human self and in education at its best, and we need to interweave them in our pedagogical discourse as well.”

From everywhere around us, voices are calling for change and innovation – be they quick and nimble pivots or the kind of change that is slow and incremental. Sometimes we are so quick to act, respond and lead, we forget ourselves. We skip the deeper inner thinking that will help us devise new strategies and navigation tools. We don’t take the time to wrestle with the value tensions that are, frankly, confusing and messy. As educators, we have an obligation to slow down, drill into our assumptions, listen, and learn as part of the pedagogical process.

How will we teach the next generation to cross the river rapids before us? By doing the personal and communal work, by listening and learning, by weaving the intellectual, emotional and spiritual. That is the heart of Jewish teaching, and the heart of Jewish educational leadership.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu