Jewish Education: Thinking About the Generations That Will Come After Us
by Rabbi Stan Schickler
Much of the reaction to Charles Edelsberg’s initial blog post has offered specific examples of responses to the challenges we face in our communities and their settings. During this High Holy Days season of introspection, I would like to take a more general approach.
My first thought after reading Dr. Edelsberg’s piece was of a quotation attributed to Yogi Berra: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” My next thought was to remember an essay by Simon Rawidowicz, the great 20th century Jewish philosopher, called Israel: The Ever-Dying People. The premise of this essay is that every generation of Jews sees itself as the final generation, as the last generation that will exist before we perish:
Israel makes only one image of itself: that of a being constantly on the verge of ceasing to be, of disappearing. (p. 53)
He who studies Jewish history will readily discover that there was hardly a generation in the Diaspora that did not consider itself the final link in Israel’s chain. . . . . Each generation grieved not only for itself but also for the great past that was going to disappear, as well as for the future of unborn generations who would never see the light of day. (p. 54)
I periodically return to this essay, which has become a touchstone for me. Why? Because I find it heartening and encouraging that our current generation is motivated and moved by this same impulse that has moved the preceding generations. What initially sounds like something negative and pessimistic is actually hopeful — Rawidowicz points out:
[Our] seers and mentors have time and again pronounced the dire warning: “Israel, thou art going to be wiped off from the face of the earth; the end is near—unless and if…” There were many “ifs,” and yet they were always the same. (p. 53)
It seems to me that most of our attempts to both predict and take hold of the future come from this impulse, this notion, that we are the final generation. There is something paradoxical about that. It is pessimistic, yet hopeful. Rawidowicz issues a jeremiad regarding our continued existence, but then ends on a promising and even encouraging note: “unless and if.” These qualifying words imply that we have some control over our fate, that our fate is connected to steps we can proactively undertake, to behavior we can actually carry out. That is tremendously encouraging and motivating — the notion that what we do can and does make a difference as we work to transmit our heritage and our way of life on to the next generation. The stakes are high — they are no less than the perpetuation of Judaism and Jewish life.
While much of the activity in Jewish life and in the world of Jewish education right now is a reaction to the economic challenges of the past number of years, I find the ferment and the fertility to be incredibly exciting and encouraging. Indeed, this activity flows from our commitment to Rawidowicz’s “unless and if.” We seem to be on the cusp of a sea change in the way we carry out Reform Jewish education, and Dr. Edelsberg’s insights and observations are tremendously relevant as we go forward. In fact, this is a wonderfully exciting time to be involved in the field of Jewish education.
At the same time, I, too, am apprehensive about trying to predict the future. It is not clear what will have staying power, what will be “sticky.” Everything moves so rapidly and so quickly that it is tough to know where to put down a stake and where to make commitments to particular venues or media or delivery strategies. But I do agree with Dr. Edelsberg’s assertions regarding the power of our Reform Movement and its distinctive qualities that uniquely position us to engage our members in order to foster and enhance and deepen relationships — between individuals, between individuals and institutions, and to Judaism and Jewish life.
To bring us back to where we started: There is always the impulse to think about the generations that will come after us. This impulse has been at work throughout our history, and continues to be operative today. The famous story of Honi the Circlemaker illustrates this beautifully.
One day while [Honi was] walking on the road, he noticed a man planting a carob tree. Said Honi to the man: “You know that it takes 70 years before a carob tree bears fruit. Are you so sure that you will live 70 years and eat from it?” “I found this world filled with carob trees,” the man replied. “As my ancestors planted them for me, so do I plant them for my progeny.”(Ta’anit 23)
Rabbi Stan Schickler, RJE, is the executive director of the National Association of Temple Educators.
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.