Rededicating ourselves to “otherness”
January 6th, 2015
“True community does not come into being because people have feelings for each other (though that is required, too), but rather on two accounts: all of them have to stand in a living, reciprocal relationship to a single living center, and they have to stand in a living, reciprocal relationship to one another.” – Martin Buber, I and Thou
The end of the year is a time when I read voraciously. I do so annually wanting to rededicate myself to the concept of “otherness,” which for me derives from a long cherished belief in specific aspects of Martin Buber’s I and Thou.
Reminding myself that there is an ever-present “other” – both in the amount of content in which I lack knowledge and about which I am inquisitive, and in the “thou” that represents the individuality of every single human being whom I encounter – replenishes my senses of wonder and awe. I invariably come away refreshed from what I fancy is my personal celebration of limerence (social critic David Brooks’ term describing a passionate love for learning). And the personal translates to the public: I begin the New Year listening for understanding with heightened attention to my colleagues and Foundation Board of Directors, and searching more circumspectly with Jim Joseph Foundation grantees for effective approaches to Jewish education.
This December’s reading list included texts in several domains: the spiritual geography of place; teacher training; and contemporary Jewish sociology. On its face this looks like an entirely random set of topics, the content of each unrelated to the themes, main ideas, facts, figures, and findings of the other. But it is precisely this breadth of topic that holds its allure in its challenge for me to integrate what appears disparate and even disconnected. Moreover, and most importantly, is the matter of using discovery and learning to inform my Foundation work.
So, by way of example, Richard Cohen’s controversial Israel: Is it Good for the Jews? has no obvious relationship whatsoever to Mark C. Taylor’s Recovering Place: Reflections on Stone Hill. I accept that it is a surprising coupling of texts dissimilar in many ways. Yet Cohen writes incisively about Herzl’s vision of Israel as a place defining who we are as a Jewish people… “a place where a Jew could be a free Jew, a proud Jew, a totally unfettered Jew, but it could also be a place – and this was most important – where a Jew could be free not to be a Jew” (p.13). Taylor, ruminating poetically on a small town in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, avers “that by pausing to dwell on a particular place, we may once again know who we are by discovering where we are” (p. 3).
Cohen is a syndicated columnist who offers a highly interpretive and personalized brief history of Israel. Taylor, a professor of religion, has compiled a collection of meditations and photographs sanctifying the place where the author lives. Conjoined together, these strikingly different texts awakened in me the need to open my eyes wide to the physical space I inhabit. Absorbing these two sources helps prime me for the June, 2015 Board meeting the Foundation will hold in Israel, knowing that I will have the opportunity to engage deeply with my Israeli brethren and with the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael itself.
While Israel: Is it Good for the Jews and Recovering Place might seem like unlikely companions, Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher and Sharon Feiman-Nemser’s Teachers as Learners are easily read together, without dissonance. Both books make exceptionally strong cases for further professionalizing the field of teaching.
The story-like narrative Green artfully tells and the insightful, rigorous analysis Feiman-Nemser constructs make a compelling case for an epistemology of teaching – content knowledge about pedagogy – that defy notions of individuals “born to be teachers” or educators achieving pedagogical excellence simply by teaching to a set of imposed curriculum standards. Neither book is about Jewish education or Jewish day schools. But reading these two original contributions to the literature on teacher preparation compels me to wonder to what extent Jewish day schools invest deeply in their teachers’ ongoing professional development.
I think both Feiman-Nemser’s and Green’s books may ultimately be viewed as landmark contributions to the literature each seeks to enrich. True, secular education at certain levels is something different than Jewish day school education. Yet Feiman-Nemser and Green prompt me to think critically about what Jim Joseph Foundation investments in teacher preparation and professional development at HUC, JTS, YU, Brandeis, Pardes, and the Jewish New Teacher Project are producing. I also ponder what role the Consortium for Advanced Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE) can ultimately play in professionalizing day school teaching. These books inspire me to want to believe that the craft of teaching can be mastered. I ponder what a multitude of demonstrably great teachers might mean to the future of Jewish day school education.
My final holiday pairing of Keren McGinity’s groundbreaking Marrying Out and Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute’s American Jewish Population Estimates: 2012 probably seems like another logical concurrent reading of two texts. The Steinhardt study, estimating the U.S. Jewish population at 6.8 million, received a good deal of attention when it was initially released. I find the study to be informative on a number of levels. Perhaps most noteworthy is the authors’ persuasive contention that most Jewish population studies conflate demographic and sociological data. The result is both miscalculation of the population of Jews (underestimating the number) as well as distortion in representations of the nature of contemporary American Jewish life.
McGinity’s fascinating qualitative analysis of the lives of 52 men in interfaith marriages (all of the couples reside in Ann Arbor, Michigan) reveals a host of dynamics having to do with men’s identities that – to my knowledge – have rarely been researched. McGinity’s portraits are realistic, nuanced, and detailed. They uncover a depth of Jewishness and strength of Jewish identity in interfaith marriages that the literature ignores – as do the critics of interfaith marriage.
The research conducted by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and Keren McGinity makes me wary of many commentators on the 2013 Pew study whose rhetoric of fatalism is countermanded by these empirical and qualitative findings. These texts point me in the direction of ensuring the Jim Joseph Foundation continues to track population studies while separating from them sweeping, flawed generalizations about the character of Jewish life that too often accompany the studies.
My December reading—varied and inspiring it certainly was—again showed me that in nearly all aspects of life, the need for continued learning is great. It is a simple but stark reminder that Jim Joseph Foundation personnel should read widely and respect “otherness” as a means to consider an array of solutions (some still undiscovered) to complex problems of improving Jewish teaching and learning.