The Chain of Tradition in Jewish Education

I share Dr. Charles Edelsberg’s trepidations about making predictions, especially when it comes to the curriculum – in its broadest sense – of Reform Jewish education. With dramatic changes underway in both the American and Jewish communal landscapes, it would seem folly to make statements for which one might be held accountable. And yet, because we are at a point in history when, as they say, “change is the new constant,” it is a question that must be addressed.

Indeed all learning, and most especially Jewish learning, needs to be relevant to the student— from the very youngest to those who are older. Watching my 5-year-old nephew sing Jewish songs because he understands the relevance of the lyrics to his life brings joy to my heart. Even better is to watch him talk with my 95-year-old grandmother, his great-grandmother, about a particular Jewish holiday about which he also sings. Here, it is clear that the curriculum is touching the heart of a student and is being shared with others. This core of relevancy will be vital to the avenue of delivery that is chosen.

Harnessing technology’s potential for education is one area that Jewish educators likely will need to address to ensure that we are on the cutting edge and not lagging behind. With today’s ever-changing technology, however, we cannot limit ourselves by stating that a curriculum ought to use the web, or a particular app or social utility such as Twitter or Pinterest. All too often, Jewish education lacks the ability to make nimble adjustments based on changes in our North American culture.

Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us, “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but text people.” My interpretation of this quote for our times is that we need teachers who are living models of Judaism and masters in the art of engagement. Although the faculty as a whole needs to embrace the beautiful tapestry in which one can live a Jewish life, individual teachers—through their relationships with students—must be able to translate a true love of Judaism to the next generation. The world we live in does not embrace community in the same ways as of old. Once, people joined congregations to be part of a community, to seek opportunities for education and spiritual fulfillment; today, people join congregations because of individuals. It is the one-on-one relationships that then grow to create a community. Such community-building needs to take place in all our educational settings – encompassing the youngest of our learners through to those with lived-life wisdom.

As the North American Jewish community changes, it is our responsibility to make this a time of inspiration and spiritual growth that will create an ever-vibrant Judaism. The National Association of Temple Educators (NATE) and its members understand and embrace our role in shalshelet hakabalah, the chain of tradition.

This post is part of our Virtual Symposium on Jewish Education. Read the rest of the posts submitted by Reform Jewish educators across the Movement.

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Lisa Lieberman Barzilai

About Lisa Lieberman Barzilai

Lisa Lieberman Barzilai is the Director of the Leadership Institute, which is part of the URJ Strengthening Congregations team. She began her work with the URJ in July 2001 following 14 years of experience as an educator in Reform synagogue congregational schools in New York and New Jersey. Within the URJ and out of it, Lisa has served in various leadership positions: She was formerly the URJ Director of Expanding out Reach, has served on the board of ARJE (formerly NATE) since 1995, and is currently its immediate past-president. She has a Masters in Jewish Education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, which has given her the title of Reform Jewish Educator. She is married to Rabbi Morris W. Barzilai. They live in New Rochelle, New York and have three children: Matti, Zari, and Avi.


  1. Jewish Education & Technology: New Models Abound | RJ Blog - September 13, 2012

    […] her response to Dr. Edelsberg, NATE President Lisa Lieberman Barzilai states, “As the North American Jewish community changes, it is our responsibility to make this a time of […]

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