Response to Berger by Rabbi Jay Goldmintz
In truth, based on his descriptions, I am not quite sure to which community I belong. On the one hand, there are many schools where adherence to Halakhah is a core value and at the same time “where ethnic identity is strong and a sense of Jewish distinctiveness assumed.” Yet I would not say that that there is “no need to cultivate a deliberately Jewish life” nor would I describe “the ritual life of the school as unreflective.” Perhaps this is true in the most insular and haredi of communities, although I would suspect in a smaller number than we would imagine, given the dire warnings that one hears from that community about the evils of the Internet. What we are speaking about here is the challenge of modernity, and the tensions that exist in living in a society that is so open and so often at odds with our own values, a society with which our students may be far more familiar and by which they are more enticed. The challenge of a purposeful education, then, is one which faces almost all of us.
Berger calls for schools to be mission-driven and to have an articulated vision that informs the school’s own decisions and which should be shared “if necessary” to the wider school community. Absent from the list of constituents are the students themselves. Our vision needs first and foremost to be shared outright with our students on a regular basis, at every opportunity that we can find, for we can no longer rely upon the fact that they will get it by osmosis from either home or school. Precisely because our students are so immersed in the secular world, it behooves us more than ever to articulate for them exactly what our purpose is, regardless of how we define it. We can have a vision, Jewish choices, ritual, language, texts and the like and yet still have students who do not “get it.”
In my own community there was a time when it was suggested that there was no need to define or articulate what integration of Torah and the modern world was about. Teach them the best of American and Jewish tradition and the integration will take place within the student himself, people said. For a variety of reasons, I believe this approach is no longer tenable, if indeed it ever was. In a recent study of thousands of teens across the country and across faiths, interviewers were astounded by how inarticulate students were about their own faith. Citing philosopher Charles Taylor, who suggested that inarticulacy undermines the possibilities of reality, the study claims that “religious faith, practice, and commitment can be no more than vaguely real when people cannot talk much about them. Articulacy fosters reality.” The purposefulness, then, must not only be incorporated into the construct of the school’s implicit or hidden curriculum; it must be explained overtly to the students themselves so that instruction in these most precious of educational values becomes explicit.
If intentionality means making choices, then now more than ever before our students need to be able not only to make the right choices (however we may define them) but to give voice to why these choices are so purposeful. Only then can we hope that they will be able to create a core whose intentions radiate to the community at large.
Rabbi Jay Goldmintz, Headmaster of Ramaz Upper School in New York City and Doctoral Student Fellow at Azrieli Graduate School, Yeshiva University, has written a number of articles related to adolescent religious development and education.
Christian Smith. The Religious and Spiritual Life of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford UP, 2005, pp. 267-268.