AVIV: I’ve Had it With Jewish Ignorance…

Dan Aviv


…and here’s a recent example. As a Jew, I loved the idea of the “Saturday Night Seder.” Over a million people watched it, and the organizers raised more than $3 million for the CDC Foundation. However, as a Jewish educator, I cringed for much of the hour and 11 minutes. Though Billie Porter’s performance was transcendent, there were so many mundane moments with Jewish stars joking about how little they knew or how much they hated their religious instruction. Non-Jews like Rachel Brosnahan, Darren Criss and Josh Groban seemed to know more about Passover traditions than their Jewish counterparts. (Now that’s a good bit.)

Whatever might explain this shtick, it’s not about a lack of pride. Surveys indicate that Jews are flush with it. The 2013 Pew Research Study reported that 94 per cent of American respondents agreed that they are “proud to be Jewish.” Three-quarters said that they have “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” Eighty-three per cent of “Jews of no religion” reported being proud to be Jewish. The numbers in Canada are as strong, if not more so. The 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada recounted that “[t]wo-thirds of Canadian Jews say that being Jewish is very important in their lives, with most of the rest indicating that it is at least somewhat important.”

Pride isn’t the problem. The “being Jewish” part is. 

Even though it happened what seems like years ago, the Seder still resonates with lessons. The Haggadah presents us with the four children as archetypes, clearly privileging the good child. We all want to be like them, wise and questioning. But even the bad child is included in the conversation, and the latter two children, as feckless as they are, are part of the experience – with concrete tips for how to best address their learning needs. No one is irredeemable. No one is unteachable.

The rabbis in the Mishnah thought similarly about the unlearned, or am-ha’aretz. It’s bad to be an am-ha’aretz, but it’s important to stress that being one is not the person’s fault. Their state of mind could be a result of bad schooling or no schooling at all. And even though Hillel said an am-ha’aretz could not be pious (Avot 2:5), he also taught that only the bold can learn and only the patient can teach.

It takes true courage to admit that you don’t know. Perhaps humour helps to lessen the sting of such an admission. Hopefully, there’s a patient teacher on hand to hear that and acknowledge it.

In other words, it’s on educators and schools to fix ignorance. Toronto’s day school system is extensive but largely focused on educating its students and graduating them. Whether all of these schools survive in a post-COVID world remains to be seen, but we have an opportunity to redefine Jewish learning.

In 2005, Jack Wertheimer argued that “[t]he current challenge in the field of Jewish education is to link the silos, to build cooperation across institutional lines and thereby enable learners to benefit from mutually reinforcing educational experiences.” What we did instead was spend 15 years building more silos.

ADRABA, a program I launched with Sholom Eisenstat and Frank Samuels, seeks to address not only the casual acceptance of ignorance in the Jewish community but also the silo problem.

ADRABA blends traditional teaching with technology to enhance learning. How we design curriculum, use space and construct the learning day reflects this forward-looking pedagogy, one that seeks to take learning outside the immediate bounds of the classroom and the traditional school.

For example, in a unit on Bereisheet (Genesis), we integrate a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel and invite a comparison/contrast of the frescos with scripture and commentary. In another lesson, we explore the Israel Museum’s Pessah seder plate collection as inspiration for designing and fabricating our own at a “makerspace.”

We also dedicated an entire curriculum to exploring how Jews eat and what this says about our culture, values and traditions. Once the bounds of the traditional classroom are removed, the possibilities are endless – and the learner drives learning.

When it comes to the silo problem, we have worked intensively to establish partnerships with a diverse roster of Jewish institutions downtown. Our shared goal is simple: We want to provide additional options for Jewish learning for Jewish teens who aren’t already part of “the system.” In a reality where resources are limited, we don’t need to duplicate efforts. We need to maximize them.

Being Jewish and proud is wondrous. But it’s not a shtick, and like the opening improv gambit, it’s only the beginning. When someone says they’re proud to be Jewish, I’m quick to reply: “Yes. And?”

Dan Aviv
Dan Aviv

Dr. Dan Aviv is the Lead Educator and Design at ADRABA (adraba.ca), Toronto’s newest and only blended learning Jewish high school.