Beyond Disruption: Learning, Leading, and Healing in 2021

Miriam SternMiriam Heller Stern, Ph.D.
Vice Provost for Educational Strategy; Associate Professor; National Director, School of Education  

I used to encourage our education students to be disruptors. The Jewish educational system was stuck in hard-wired routines, with an outdated compass, serving a population that craved something different, better, more attuned to their needs.

But now life itself is disrupted. Indefinitely. Things we used to take for granted as linear and whole are now fragmented, shuffled, unsettled. “Life is the Transitions” (a somewhat prophetic book written just prior to the pandemic) Bruce Feiler uses the term “disruptors” to describe the events that fundamentally change the trajectory of our lives. He is referencing the disrupting events that impact our identities, beliefs, relationships, work, education and health. They shape and reshape our life trajectories in constantly shifting and unanticipated ways. The goal is no longer to make a name as a disruptor, defined as a cool, edgy innovator. The goal is to learn how to lead and teach the disrupted with empathy, strategy and flexibility.

How do we practice the dispositions to lead as Jewish educators in today’s disrupted world?

Kintsugi, the Japanese art of “golden rejoining,” is a practice of reassembling the pieces of a broken precious vessel and painting over the cracks with gold. In our “Kintsugi Beit Midrash,” I lead students in exploring classical Jewish texts about the power of remaking ourselves and honoring our broken pieces. We can both validate our human fallibility and empower ourselves to improve at the same time. This time of year, the practice becomes a kind of teshuva. As a complement to prayer and difficult conversations, the embodied practice of kintsugi enables us to hold the brokenness and repair it through a powerful metaphor.  The act of puzzling over how to put it together, the frustration when it doesn’t hold, and the envy when it appears easy for others leads to “aha moments” at the intersection of the personal and professional. We become acutely aware of our own strengths and barriers as leaders when it comes to managing change.

In the end, we take our broken pieces and find a way to create something new. Our repaired bowl is not what it was before, but it is a symbol, a piece of art, that reminds us that change, though at times painful, is necessary – and produces a beauty that surprises us.

There is no doubt that these times demand a kind of creative puzzle-solving the likes of which we have not seen before. Jewish educators are navigating personal traumas and collective traumas, while managing a constantly evolving set of logistical challenges and a wide variety of needs when it comes to health, safety, teaching and learning. Across our DeLeT (Day School Leadership through Teaching), Master of Educational Leadership, and Executive MA programs at HUC-JIR, we are introducing new literature and best principles for assuming a trauma-informed stance in educational design and teaching. These tools are like the glue and gold paint in kintsugi: they are essential to recreating the vessel, but ultimately we must rely on an educators’ mindset to make adaptive decisions to support our communities in learning and growth.

Professor Lee Shulman once told a group of my students that the work of an educator is like that of a doctor in the triage unit of a hospital. The pace of decision making is so rapid, the factors constantly shifting. Being able to connect prior knowledge and expertise with the person who is actually in front of you is paramount if you want to make the right call in the moment. Indeed, Jewish education in recent years has embraced an essential role in attending to emotional and spiritual wellness. That kind of attunement requires a blending of professional skill, content knowledge and emotional intelligence.

At each of our program orientations this year, I taught my favorite text from Parker Palmer’s the Courage to Teach, an excerpt titled, “We teach who we are.” In it, Palmer discusses how essential it is for the professional learning of an educator to integrate the intellectual, the emotional and the spiritual. In our beit midrash, we connected a beautiful Jewish metaphor to Palmer’s conception: the חוט המשולש, a braided cord of three strands, as it says in Ecclesiastes 4:12, a three-strand cord cannot be broken. Take away one strand (the intellectual, the emotional, or the spiritual), and the educator does not have strong enough thread to weave a durable fabric of teaching and learning. Our graduate programs in Jewish education and teaching consciously knit together all three, as our students develop their expertise in theory and practice.

These are among the key dispositions of the profession of Jewish educator. There are certainly other ways to articulate them (the official list that guides our School of Education programs includes these eight categories: Relationship Building, Self-Awareness, Learning Centered Design, Reflection, Vision Driven, Inquiry Stance, Managing Dilemmas and Holy Work). These terms are widely understood by insiders, and often underestimated by observers and consumers.  My metaphors intend to move us beyond a lowest common denominator conception of educator as engager who delivers prescribed content or comes up with activities with some sort of lesson attached. Those who commit themselves to mastering the art and science of Jewish education, weaving together the intellectual, emotional and spiritual, deserve to be recognized for their expertise.

We are living in a moment in history where the cracks in our humanity and our institutions are exposed. We Jewish educators are working diligently to put the pieces together with creativity, patience and resilience. Our lives have been disrupted and there is no way to unlearn the experiences we have had. We carry our brokenness with us, and there are fissures under the surface that we have not yet even discovered. We invite our learners to paint the cracks with us, adding their gold to the layers of glue, so that when the shards become shalem (whole, complete) all of the pieces of us and strands of who we are become part of the precious vessels of Judaism that we create and preserve through Jewish education.