The medium is the message in Jewish education

(Pixabay photo)

Marshall McLuhan’s adage, “The medium is the message,” has remarkable implications for Jewish education. The immersive nature of television influenced culture goes beyond news and entertainment, to create the global village. The adage is a wakeup call, which reminds us that we are what we eat, that method becomes content and that how we learn shapes who we become. If Jewish education stems from a genuine interest in seeing children advantaged by their Jewishness – spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, even physically – and the Jewish future advantaged by these children – cherished, strengthened, nurtured, even dynamized – what’s the medium and what’s the message?

On one side, parents enrol children in schools for daily Torah study, regardless of the strength of the rest of the curriculum. They rely on the past to carry the future. On the other side, children attend school with other Jewish kids, no matter how little Judaism is taught.

Their families are fine with how the world is turning and look ahead. The former claims the latter don’t care about Judaism, the latter says they get all they need. But how will children be prepared to lead a successful adult life, if they are not broadly trained at school? And how will tomorrow’s adults carry Jewishness forward if they know little of their heritage? One might think that the middle ground is awash in conversations about how to draw both sides towards moderation. Unfortunately, it’s not. The debate over content is silent and empty and the two trajectories head in different directions.

Threads to interweave the two can be pulled from each, deep concern for Judaism from one and adaptation from the other. Cohesion requires a discussion about what genuine educational excellence looks like in 5779, even if schools and parents are not overly open to the topic. Tuition affordability becomes less urgent if what is being paid for cannot secure students’ future and should resolve as enrolment increases.

It’s time to talk about quality. In a multi-focus society and demanding economy, Jewish schools must perch at a level of distinction that makes them competitive with all other claims to the community’s attention and money. Otherwise families will not come, or they will leave. Tech savvy, money conscious parents seek value; both private and tutorial schools proliferate. Excellent schools offer pro-social curricula with strong academic standards, and excellent Jewish schools blend in optimal Jewish identity development. The goal is not to keep Jewish day schools running; it’s to make them the most sought after destination for education of any kind, a palette of diverse centres of excellence that has parents chomping at the bit to get their kids in as soon as possible. This has to be the benchmark because each student is a child only once.

Great schools prepare children to be motivated learners, flexible thinkers and self-regulated individuals who can set and achieve goals, with creativity and ingenuity shining. Graduates show confidence and competency in modern and ancient ways, having studied all subjects, including Jewish texts, values and practice, intentionally and authentically. Flourishing Jewish identity includes happiness to be Jewish, and self-esteem as a Jew and a Canadian.

The age of information is now the age of the curator. All children – Jewish or not – require pedagogy that teaches them to decipher, evaluate and capitalize on the flood of information that surrounds them. Theirs is not a generation in search of knowledge; their challenge is to differentiate between legitimate information, unfiltered opinion and fake news. It’s fascinating that Jewish study encompasses the analytic, interdisciplinary, meta-cognitive approach that the whole world is struggling to manufacture.

State-of-the-art educational strategies confirm that learning in the Jewish way is not simply “our” way of doing it, it is the best way of doing it. It offers benefits in addition to the rituals and precepts that some consider its sum total, delivering intellectual and performance value alongside the “Jewish data.” Complex interpretive tasks are daily fare for students who live a compound identity – i.e., as Jewish Canadians. They adapt to holding multiple ideas in their heads at once. Youngsters who begin early to continually filter moral lessons through metaphorical narratives garner a more intuitive sense for critical thinking than when interpretation skills are introduced in later grades. They negotiate conflicting perspectives of thinkers through the ages, decode foreign language texts for literal and symbolic meaning and meet universal coding with the benefit of experience.


This value add does not minimize the spiritual component. It dovetails with the tradition of na’ashe v’nishma – first do, then understand. Highlighting Jewish pedagogy in this way reminds young parents how Jewish learning earned its celebrated reputation and that it delivers the competencies that society demands. Centres of excellence actively market their unique value propositions; Jewish sensibility comes with everything else.

Young parents are, as ever, a new breed, and sometimes their perspectives seem different and surprising. Yet behind modern verbiage and new applications lie the timeless concerns that all parents share and which find their educational answer in hallmarks of the best learning at the best private schools and best universities. Meanwhile, the best of the best find their solutions in the techniques of Jewish learning. Highly valued universal skills comprise the modus operandi of excellent Jewish learning. It’s almost shocking how timely Jewish methodologies appear vis-a-vis educational trends now feted by advanced schools everywhere. For example, analytical and lateral thinking ground interdisciplinary and computer studies and are core to learning Talmud. Self-awareness and self-management are learned through mindfulness techniques that mirror self-reflection taught Jewishly through ethics and mitzvot. Social justice education, which is emerging as cornerstone curricula in a pluralistic society, is the Abrahamic commitment to moral justice and notion of tikun olam. And currently, one of the most aspirational capabilities for students everywhere is the skill to collaborate, the heart of the learning modality called chevrutah.

Discovering wisdom in an educational technique that has been the purview of religion is a novel and perhaps confronting idea for many younger parents. It resides in unexplored territory that not everyone can see. It’s the frontier of mentorship. Judaism through the ages features a lack of institutional framework and this open-sided canvas may be what some young families best relate to today.

In pre-Internet times, parents may have looked to schools for knowledge and community; they now seem to feel in control of both through the push of a button. Perhaps their autonomy is empowered by the Internet, where ad hoc questions are answered on personal screens. Forty years ago, we gathered for peace, women’s rights and Soviet Jewry, and sought guidance from accredited masters. Young parents convene differently and express themselves independently. They neither join membership organizations nor affiliate formally with synagogues. They commit to new agendas, enacting their values through finite transactional events, such as interventions, campaigns or social media. Asked what they want for their children, parents crave the start-up, the fresh and the self-directed.

Excellence in Jewish pedagogy offers the start-up moment. It serves the potential of each and every child personally, through mental flexibility, intellectual acuity and meta-cognitive thinking, on whichever Jewish road is travelled. Let’s not rely on Jewish identity to grow Jewish education. Let’s reconsider excellence and rely on it instead. The Jewish way is as much about method as content. First we do, then we understand.