Meaning-Making in Jewish Education

Letter from the Editor

A number of years ago, at a community Shabbaton in Cape Town, I was presented with a dilemma. Until then, the government oversaw all learning even in private schools. That meant that there were governmental standards in Jewish studies and that Jewish studies grades appeared on students’ official transcripts, like their grades in History and Science. The department of education had recently decided to change the policy and get out of the business of overseeing non-core subjects, and the Jewish community was anxious—why would their students pay any heed to their Jewish studies classes if they were not going to “count?”

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Promoting Meaning-Making Readiness

Jewish educators speak about meaning in multiple ways: There is a factual or descriptive sense (e.g., The meaning of the Hebrew word סוס is “horse.”). Meaning can also refer to the relevance of what is learned, the ability of learners to engage with learning in a way that has some emotional investment (e.g., Max found the unit on horses to be meaningful because he grew up on a farm. The unit on iguanas? Not so much.).

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Finding and Sharing Moments of Meaning

Three stone cutters were engaged in exactly the same task—cutting stones to build a cathedral. They would take a large piece of stone, cut it into a cube, and then place the cube into a pile with all of the others. A passer-by asked each of them, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” The first looks up with a scowl on his face and barks, “Can’t you see? I take the stone, cut it, and put it in the pile over there. I’ve been doing the exact same task for the last ten years, and I probably will do this until the day I die.”

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A Framework for Evaluating Success in Jewish Education

Race, ethnicity, and nation are not entities in the world but ways of seeing the world. They are ways of understanding and identifying oneself, making sense of one’s problems and predicaments, identifying one’s interests, and orientating one’s actions. They are ways of recognizing, identifying, and classifying other people, of constructing sameness and difference, and of “coding” and making sense of their actions.

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Grounded Meaning

There are those who view meaning-making as fluffy or non-substantive. Truthfully, sometimes it is. One can make meaning out of anything; we are a species that thinks symbolically. We infuse meaning into all sorts of things that intrinsically may have no meaning at all. At the same time, once we imbue an item with meaning, such as a stuffed animal, family heirloom, or a flag, we treat that item as something special and distinct from all else around it because it brings us comfort, connection, and substance.

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Peeling Back the Layers of Meaning Mining: A Taxonomy

I do not think a Jewish studies teacher, in the 75+ year history of Jewish day school education, has ever said to themselves, “I don’t want my students’ learning to be meaningful to them today.” By implication, on some level, every Jewish studies teacher, every time they walk into their classroom has, at least implicitly, the intention that their teaching be meaningful to their students.

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A Retrospective on My First Four Decades of Meaning-Making

Growing up in the late sixties and early seventies, the world in which I lived was suffused with the search for meaning. An entire generation refused to accept that things were right because they had always been done a certain way, insisting instead that things be done because they were the right things to do. Rabbis and Jewish educators who couldn’t shift from the language of obligation to the language of meaning found themselves facing a generation of young Jews fleeing from religion or flocking to alternate ones.

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The Medium Is The Meaning

The premise of “making” meaning in Jewish education sounds somewhat heretical, code for the claim that learning Torah faces an intrinsic handicap: “The words of the Torah,” goes the argument, “may be weighty, but they’re not quite so…relevant. Learning, analyzing, and assessing exercises the brain, but ignores or stultifies the soul. And it’s a real shame, because learning Torah is so important. If only it were more meaningful…”

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Girsa de-Yankuta: The Building Block of Meaningful Learning

It is well known that the young mind is especially attuned to absorbing copious amounts of knowledge and learning skills that will last a lifetime. Skills like riding a bicycle or swimming are not readily forgotten. Furthermore, if a child is receptive, they will learn skills like playing the piano much more readily than an adult and will be likely to retain those skills well into adulthood. Rashi, in a comment on Talmud Bavli Shabbat 21b, identifies this as girsa de-yankuta.

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