Sunday, June 05, 2011

Making Israel the curriculum -- receiving (and transmitting!) Torah in a spiritual age

Today, another class at Boston's Hebrew College was ordained as rabbis to take up the mantle of being teachers and exemplars of Torah among the people Israel. They have all come to this day with the help of wonderful teachers and a community of peers -- a nurturing environment that we all must be grateful for as its existence helps form the next generation of inspiring spiritual leaders in the Jewish world.

But this must be a time not only for joy and gratitude, but also for sober reflection. We who care about the future of the Jewish people and the existence of a compelling cadre of spiritual leaders must ask ourselves tough questions about the education of rabbis. What works? What of the huge body of the thousands' years old Jewish tradition needs to be fit into these few years of education, and what is not necessary? How can we best assure that the products of this expensive education will be 'good' rabbis? And, at a time when opinions about the politics of the State of Israel are more contested than ever among the Jews, we most especially must ask about what role we expect the Israel year to play in this five or six year education process.

Once, there was little controversial about the idea that future rabbis should spend a year of their education in Israel. We expected our rabbis to be, without exception, passionate supporters of the State of Israel and its policies. We expected our rabbis to love Israel and its state without exception. And, so, an Israel year was expected to be part of a necessary process of the future rabbi strongly bonding with the State of Israel.

But, as diversity in opinions has grown among American Jews about the State of Israel's policies, many rabbinical students have come to resist this conception. Some have even claimed that being forced to spend a year in Israel would violate their core ethical beliefs. Others have questioned whether contemporary Jewry -- a Jewry that looks to rabbis as a source of spiritual inspiration and comfort as opposed to sources of political opinions -- really needs its rabbis to be experts in the land of Israel. And some have just questioned whether the substantial financial sacrifice of spending a year overseas is justified when any course taught in Israel could be just as well taught here in the States.

Of course -- as Danny Gordis’ recent article in Commentary criticizing Hebrew College makes clear – not everybody is happy with this change and some, like Gordis, appear to wish we could just magically turn the clock back to a time when American Jews had no questions about Israel. I certainly don’t agree with Gordis on many things, but, as a passionate supporter of a State of Israel myself, it is also challenging for me to accept that there will be rabbinical voices critical of Israel. Unlike Gordis, however, I know a vibrant Judaism is only possible if our emerging spiritual leaders have a place to express these kinds of voices as they go about their spiritual journeys.

Unfortunately, most of the discussions about Israel quickly devolve into contentious, unpleasant binary debates where there is no room for exploration and genuine sharing – only for people to be labeled as either pro-Israel or anti-Israel. With this unproductive unpleasantness as seemingly the only conceivable option for discussions about Israel, sometimes people within rabbinical schools become afraid to have discussions about Israel and the reasons for the Israel year. Rabbinic students are given weak, vague explanations for the requirement like it is “very important” and that they should, in effect, just “trust us” that they should do it.

That’s just not good enough in a spiritually focused age. For those of us among rabbinic educators who, like myself, are passionate about the need for rabbinic students to do an Israel year, it is incumbent to come up with justifications, and curricula, that address spiritual needs and growth. Today’s rabbinic students know that contemporary Jews expect more than just deep knowledge from their rabbis -- today's Jews also expect true spiritual leadership and thus rabbinic education needs to be fundamentally a spiritual experience that helps its students grow in their ability to use, and be, spiritual resources for the people they serve. All of our rabbinic schools understand this new importance of bringing spirituality into their curriculums overall.

Thus, I think we need to also reconceive the rabbinic Israel year in spiritual terms. It should not be about acquiring knowledge or even forming an emotional connection. It should be about the student developing his or her ability to employ the land of Israel as a spiritual resource. Below, I will put forth some specifics about how I think Israel year education can be transformed to do this. I will propose a new focus on the experiential aspects of Israel education in a way that allows each student to craft his or her own learning using reflective practices, social media tools and structured spiritual mentorship. But first I want to share a personal experience that may give you a better idea about what I mean by "employing the land of Israel as a spiritual resource."

Shortly after arriving in Jerusalem for my year there as a rabbinic student I found myself walking up a beautiful hill in the early morning darkness amid a huge stream of fellow Jews. We soon passed through the (not-quite-ancient-but-still-very-old) gates of the Old City and traversed narrow pathways of well-worn Jerusalem stone – the same kind of stone that makes up the Western Wall, where we would soon arrive.

In my country of birth, the United States, the holiday of Shavuot – supposedly one of the most important on the Jewish calendar because it, like Passover, is one of three holidays where ancient Jews made a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem and because it marks God’s giving of the holy Torah at Mt. Sinai – had never yielded much meaning to me. But here, as the sun started to rise and the small group of non-Orthodox rabbinical students and other liberally-oriented religious Jews I was with started to pray, I felt this holiday’s incredible power – as God, Torah and Israel (both the land and the people) came together in a heady mix sparked by our collective pilgrimage up to the Temple Mount.

Nowhere other than in the land of Israel could I have had such a powerful spiritual experience associated with the Shavuot holiday. As a rabbi, I do not think I have anything spiritual to offer to others that is not rooted in my own spiritual experience with things I find meaningful. Thus, this unique spiritual experience of the holiday – an experience that was in no way connected to any classroom experience or even to an informal experiential curriculum –was an essential part of my rabbinic education. It is a spiritual resource that is mine to call on every Shavuot. It allows me to enter every Shavuot with genuine spiritual excitement – excitement I can share with others of the faithful to help them find paths to personal meaning.

That is, this experience helped me grow spiritually – in particular in my ability to use Israel as a spiritual resource with Jews back in the States. Amazingly, the act of teaching out of my own genuine spirituality makes that teaching experience a support for my own continuing spiritual health and growth – teaching others reminds me of what it was like to experience Shavuot with fresh eyes, and thus renews me.

Art Green, the founder and current rector of the Hebrew College rabbinical school, touched on this in his remarks at the ordination. “The moment of giving will be the moment of receiving,” he said of acts of teaching (as we approach in only a few days Shavuot, itself, the holiday that marks the giving of the Torah to the people Israel). He told his graduating students that it is through such teaching that we retain access to those powerful moments where we felt called to become rabbis in the first place and to teach Torah among the people Israel.

It is this kind of spiritually focused educational vision that an Israel year should be about for rabbinic students. It should be about their developing spiritual resources through learning derived from their own powerful personal moments – even the ‘terrible’ ones – that they can experience in that most amazing of tiny countries that sits on the fault line between West and East and that has inspired so much passion, both love and war, through the ages. (For an example of how the ‘terrible’ can also lead to rich learning, see Minna’s beautiful Yom HaAtzma'ut reflection from 2009, where she talks about how, on the one hand, the experience of Israel could be sweet and inspiring for her, but how it could also steal her voice away and make her feel foreign and strange.)

But how can we make these kind of experiential and spiritual educational experiences more likely to occur for rabbinic students in Israel and how can we leverage these experiences into spiritual growth in these students’ ability to meet spiritual needs of others back in the States?

One way, of course is to have group trips and retreats be a part of an Israel year, and most programs do employ these techniques. But this alone is lacking for two key reasons. One, is that spiritual growth and learning is a fundamentally individualized process -- you can't expect a group oriented activity to "meet the student where they are" on their spiritual learning journey. But, more importantly, group activities alone don't consolidate people's learning. To consolidate learning, there needs to be some form of disciplined reflection on the 'action' that happens in the experience. There are many well-established tools for helping consolidate this learning, including journaling, group-based reflection in a case conference format, spiritual direction and structured mentorship. The application of these tools is strengthened by encouraging a maximum student 'buy-in' -- the student should be encouraged to take charge of his or her own learning by, in consultation with a mentor, drawing up his or her own individualized curriculum, or learning contract, that expresses the student's hopes for how he or she will make "Israel the curriculum" for him or her.

I think I can help make this happen. My training as a pastoral care educator (I am a certified Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor) has shown me how structured and disciplined reflection on powerful experiences – like talking with the dying in hospitals – can be leveraged into dramatic spiritual growth. And my experience with social media and video ethnography has shown me how new technologies can be employed to enrich this reflective learning process.

With Skype, for example, students in Israel could meet with a mentor or spiritual director back in the States to develop learning goals and educational opportunities, as well as reflecting on those experiences. Students could keep video journals of their experiences. The mentor and the student could develop ongoing discussions about those video journals. Alternatively, the student could use blogging or Twitter as a journaling tool.

Minna and I found blogging – including posting many photos – to be a powerful way to find learning in our experiences when she did her own rabbinic Israel year a couple of years back. Check out this blog post for Minna’s own take on why actually being in Israel can be a key part of a rabbinic student’s learning, as well as on how engaging in shared writing or other reflection helps consolidate the fruits of experiential learning. Also, check out this great blog being kept by a JTS rabbinical student for another example of how blogging can be learning – a way of making Israel the curriculum.

A truly deep experience of Israel – the kind of experience we feel in our bones – can be an invaluable part of a rabbinic education, an experience that can only happen in that especially sensitive time for spiritual growth that are the heart of the rabbinic education years. But those experiences cannot happen if we stifle our students with a demand that they can only be either pro- or anti-Israel. Students who are in Israel need the same kind of deep support for their spiritual growth that they have become accustomed to in the States. They need a curriculum that recognizes that the Israel year is a particularly rich time for experiential learning. They need a curriculum that recognizes that each student will have their own individualized path to discovering how their Israel experiences can act as spiritual resources for them and allow them to become more able to give Torah to the people they minister to as rabbis back here in the States – and, in doing this giving, be more able to receive Torah themselves.

Hag Sameach! – may you have a Shavuot rich in Torah, both giving and receiving.

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