(Re)Introducing Counter-Culturalism Frameworks in Jewish Education

by | Feb 14, 2023 | Building The Jewish Experience | 0 comments

At the end of an all-girls Shabbaton, just a few minutes before our Havdallah, the DJ in the ballroom next door started spinning tracks: Cotton Eye Joe, Cha Cha Slide. The party next door was a celebration of the transition from childhood to adulthood. The bass was pumping through the walls. As our students sang Shabbat away, the party next door moved on to Nelly and Flo Rida. All the noise piqued the curiosity of our students and, after Havdallah, some of the girls inevitably investigated. They returned a few minutes later. A few were puzzled, others were anguished: “Is that what teenagers do?” “What are those girls wearing?” “Why are those boys and girls dancing like that?”

This could have been just another odd but otherwise endearing rendezvous—young women trying to understand how a ceremony marking adulthood could be practiced in such diverse ways. But this brief encounter, widely discussed by my students, was regarded as an “Aha!” moment. Its power lay not as a moment of cross-cultural understanding, but as a moment of cultural dissonance. For a group of girls on that Saturday night, something clicked. They realized just how different their practices and beliefs are from those of the typical American teenager. They understood that their rich and ritualistically rigorous Jewish identities are deeply counter-cultural.

Identity Contrasts

To be a Gen Z teenager in our roaring 2020s means navigating extreme political polarization and cancel culture, misinformation and ecological pessimism. In response to these trends, Gen Z‑ers, according to a slew of studies from the Associated Press, are bold and progressive. Contemporary teenagers enjoy unparalleled access to creativity and diversity. Not surprisingly, more than half of this generation would jump at the chance to become a social-media influencer over being a teacher, doctor, or astronaut. Their engagement with technology and multiculturalism marks them as a distinct generation. They are also broadly accepting of queer identities and non-traditional household structures. They reject, nearly en masse, traditional religion.

These larger trends come amid newfound pressures. Gen Z‑ers suffer from the highest rates of mental health issues–body dysmorphia, depression, and social anxiety—than any previous generation. They spend less time socializing and far more time on screens than any generation. Importantly, these cultural influences and hot-button issues are virtually inescapable (in both senses of the word). They are served up via algorithms to anyone with a smartphone and a TikTok or Instagram or Twitter or Twitch or YouTube account. That is to say, almost any modern teenager.

To be a Jewish Gen Z teenager is even more complex. Students are growing up in a zeitgeist often antithetical to the values of their religious communities. The cultural forces that shape those same algorithms are largely unsympathetic to the foundation of a committed religious or even communal life. The contrast between Jewish day school values—arguably even the most progressive Jewish day schools—and those in the wider culture has perhaps never been so stark. Students are given one message during the day: respect for family, decorum, tradition, sexual restraint, clean speech, loyalty, and Zionism. Yet when they open nearly any piece of popular media, they are fed a dizzying, free-wheeling, post-modern set of cultural norms. And these values become intensified—sometimes shockingly so—on the college campus.

Living between these two worlds as a day school student is exhausting. It’s also mostly foreign and inaccessible to adults. To learn more, I have asked my students to reflect on this dissonance in seminars I have taught on media literacy. They all encountered—some daily—intense moments of identity discord. Between mundane funny dance videos, new sneaker reveals, and “fashion hauls,” students encounter distressing content. For one, it was seeing old public-school friends share antisemitic memes. For another, it was seeing fellow teens conspire in cyberbullying, a moment of lashon hara (slander), as the student reported. For one student, it was discovering that she was in a political echo chamber that was “not good for her neshama.” This is, indeed, not good for the soul.

Navigating Incongruities

What do adolescents do when facing these moments of incongruity? When I reviewed my focus groups’ responses, they seemed to fit into two broad strategies: to trivialize and to filter. The most common mechanism seemed to be a dismissal of either what they read or saw as performative or meaningless: “It’s all hype.” Instead of taking the moment of cultural dissonance seriously, it is easier and less taxing to just downplay the event as insignificant. Others filtered out media they saw as incongruous with their beliefs. “If I don’t like it, I just unsubscribe,” was a common refrain. “I just scroll,” most said. Nearly all my students could point out a moment they swiped away from influencers or videos they found grating. Some had deleted apps altogether.

Unfortunately, students did not report what Leon Festinger—who first theorized cognitive dissonance in the 1950s—found to be an effective way to deal with cognitive dissonance: introducing a new values framework. Adding new consonants reduces the importance of dissonant information. Festinger found that those who could articulate an overarching belief system when faced with contradictory values emerged with more firmly planted identities. Stanford University’s Claude Steele later found that adolescents who reflect on their personal values are less likely to report feeling distressed by incongruities. They are less likely to be dismissive when confronted with information that contradicts their identities.

Our ultra-connected students suffer from cultural and cognitive dissonance. Their divergent generational values and etiquettes—removed from their millennial, Gen X and Boomer teachers—require new pedagogical tools. Can introducing a counter-culturalism framework help?

Anti-Culture, Abstain-from-Culture Approaches

In the face of these strong cultural currents, some Jewish schools have taken an anti-culture approach. They ban cell phones; they filter out the internet. They discourage any interaction with the outside world. These yeshivot, and increasingly, mainstream day schools, have decided to, essentially, pull up the drawbridge. The great irony of these approaches is that the moat doesn’t extend past the school campus or after school hours. This method, in my experience working in a school with this ideology, can create bizarre dynamics. In my years working at such a school, students still had iPhones, watched Netflix and TikTok, yet Rabbis and spiritual leaders, for the most part, acted as if those influences didn’t exist. They left students to fend for themselves.

Others might advocate for a different form of nonparticipation; hot-button issues are better left to parents to discuss with their own children. This is spillover from the often-acrimonious partisan culture wars that have taken over public education. While this abstain-from-culture approach might work in public education, this abstention runs counter to a Jewish values-based education. An enduring Jewish education, one which enriches students for life, is one that helps students identify how their Jewish values are in sync but also often out of sync with the milieu. My review of three dozen mission statements of Jewish schools across the spectrum found that every school referenced developing outward-facing Jewish identities. High school mission statements were even more explicit in developing student identity visa-vis society at large. Our parents partner with us but also rely on us to impart a values framework that prepares children to thrive in the modern world.

A Counter-Cultural Framework

How do we prepare our students to cut against the grain, to think critically and metacognitively about the society they live in? I am lucky to work and network with colleagues who have begun taking this work seriously. These teachers do not want to sermonize against modern teenage media culture. Instead, they aim to provide what Leon Festinger would have suggested in the face of dissonant information: a values framework. These teachers employ two strategies— double-loop thinking and high contrast scenarios—that catalyze student counter-cultural identity development.

Double Loop Thinking

Harvard Business School theorist Chris Argyris found tell-tale habits of individuals (and institutions) capable of transformative critical thinking. Those who could engage in what he termed “double loop” thinking were able to emerge stronger from high pressure, high conflict events. “Double loop” thinking refers to the ability to reflect on and challenge the underlying assumptions and norms that govern a particular situation, rather than simply reacting to the situation in a habitual or predetermined way. Double loop thinking involves not only considering the immediate effects of a decision or action, but also examining the broader implications and potential long-term consequences. Argyris found that double loop thinking could be taught by having individuals reflect on what they are doing and then reflect the underlying assumptions and value systems within the action. This inquiry-based learning asks students to dig deep. Students of Jewish texts, especially Talmud, are primed for this kind of learning. Studying Jewish texts, commentaries, and super-commentaries helps students learn the process of challenging assumptions.

For students deeply engaged in media culture, double loop thinking invites them to think beyond being a consummate consumer. The most successful double loop lessons I’ve seen used a Talmudic portion of Aggada or Pirkei Avot to frame the lessons about materialism, jealousy, and humility. Teachers asked students to consider what influencer culture is doing to body image. They went further by asking how Jewish texts and values of modesty or lashon hara might provide guidance. Instead of students swiping away, they taught students to see how a different value system might provide guidance, in this case about the all-too-common issues of image-based social media platforms and mental health. Sefaria has developed several lessons that help develop this type of thinking using texts, and their lesson plan on social isolation and the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and the cave is a prime example. Double loop thinking provides a counterweight. It helps students turn off “autopilot” and start to become educated consumers.

High Contrast Scenarios

A high contrast photographer (think Ansel Adams) dials up the difference between light and dark areas. This contrast creates a striking visual impact and draws attention to the subject of the photo. Similarly, creating robust counter-cultural sensitivity happens through high contrast learning, not through “revolutionary ideologies,” as Frank Musgrove wrote in Ecstasy and Holiness: Counterculture and the Open Society. According to Musgrave, young adults build counter-cultural identities through an “exploratory curriculum,” and “a range of experiences and exposures through which the postmodern generation seeks a sense of significance.” Musgrove and other counter-cultural theorists argued that rigorously ideological counter-cultural identities (not just teenage rebellion) are formed by contrasting different value systems. By increasing the contrast between value systems, educators can help adolescents pick up the bright and the dark.

Creating these high contrast moments requires educators to build in opportunities, inside and outside the classroom. Those high contrast opportunities show students how the values of their families and faith communities diverge with those around us. For instance, teachers might seize on an important current-events controversy to show how Jewish core texts, halakha, and philosophy would respond with more nuance than the public sentiment. Students might discuss what so many celebrities and media personalities get wrong about antisemitism. Teachers might invite speakers into the classrooms to highlight how differently Jews might think about cancel culture given our multi-faceted concepts of teshuva. Bret Stephen’s essay on cancel culture, published in the journal Sapir, offers insightful next steps for teachers. Rabbi David Wolpe’s essay on disagreement in the Talmud, also in Sapir, contrasts key stories of rabbinic political disagreements to the way disagreements are handled in social media. The goal of this approach is not to “scare straight” students with anecdotes of the moral corruption or irredeemability of certain aspects of society (an infamous approach that has the opposite effect!). Instead, it is to give students realistic, relevant scenarios that highlight difference and allow students to develop their counter-cultural compass.

Outside of our classrooms and schools, students (and teachers) swim in a sea of competing and often confusing cultural norms. Inside our classrooms we can curate a different experience, one in which they engage with their identities. The Jewish day school teacher of the mid-2020s has the power—and moral responsibility—to bring clarity and insight into the connected lives of our students. We need to create moments for students to think critically and metacognitively. This is hard work. We must invite students to step back from their media diets and look more closely, to pause and attend. This is also urgent work. Jewish teachers must think creatively about how to educate students in a world of rapid culture transformation. Our traditions and text offer clarifying frameworks. It’s up to us to show their relevance and resonance.

Gavriel Brown is the Assistant Dean of Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago. Rabbi Dr. Brown is an alumnus of Teach for America (Newark, ’14), was a fellow at New Leaders, and was named a Clark Scholar at the American Educational Research Association. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University.

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