I read with great interest the opening chapter of Jewish Megatrends and the manner in which the ideas were presented made me reexamine my own work in the Jewish community. While I can fairly say that my work touches on all of the ideas presented in some way I would like to focus on two which are at the core of what I do.
As an educator, I care deeply about Jewish text and the power of learning. Creating educational opportunities is the central work of my organization. I believe that educated Jews make better decisions about their Jewish lives. The contemporary world in which we live values autonomy and yet we don’t always teach our community how to make informed decisions about their practice. The term pediatric Judaism has been used to describe how we care deeply about Jewish day schools but leave adults to fend for themselves. I think that it is often adults who absorb an idea along with its implications for their life. Sadly, many adults are missing the opportunity to develop that skill.
My approach has always been to teach with an eye towards bridging the gap between the learning and its application. True wisdom in that sense is not just knowing lots of laws about Jewish life or to memorize facts about a wide swath of history. Chochma is the ability to synthesize all of that knowledge and apply it to a contemporary problem, to recognize that ancient laws can guide us to new practices and that the problems we face today are not novel, they have often been dealt with in some manner in the past.
There is also a deeper value that is at play in Jewish learning, namely, Torah lishmah, study for its own sake. This kind of study is the result of an appreciation of the way in which learning is sacred and has value just for the act of sitting with a text and grappling with it alone or with a partner. The impression that I get from my Christian colleagues is that most people who go to services at any given evangelical Church go to a weekly Bible study as well. To them, it is just part of their religious life. Judaism, outside of the Ultra-Orthodox world does not value learning as part of regular spiritual activity. We need to change this.
We are the people of the book and while it is a fallacy to think that we have always been intellectuals, the Jewish community always had an intellectual class. While historically most people worked all day, there was always some form of trickle-down economics in play. The very few scholars in the community were examples for those with less time and ability. The end result was that even the simple learners still maintained groups like the chevra mishnayot who gathered to study Mishna at an elementary level.
Most of us are no longer simple learners. The Jewish community is filled with members who have advanced degrees and we all recognize the value of professional development. Adult Jewish Learning, seen in that light, is continuing professional development for Jews.
One of the trends that I am excited to be part of is the way in which emerging Jewish organizations are increasingly treating themselves like entrepreneurial startups. Professionalism in the Jewish community was often simply a measure of how many donors you could attract. Many innovators are now borrowing liberally from the business world, with many Federations even now demanding measurable goals in order to receive any sort of grant or funding. I happen to think that this is a welcome change and I have fully embraced it. Entrepreneurial principles such as fail fast and fail often, iterating an idea until it is something which the community is much more receptive to and testing an idea using focus groups, are methods that the startup world has been using as best practices to build the best companies possible. It is great to see that this is happening in the Jewish world as well.
Rabbi Avi Finegold is the founder and lead educator of the Jewish Learning Lab, an adult education organization and strategic consultancy based in Montreal.