Once You Hit “Send,” It’s Out of Your Hands
In the past, I’ve submitted items to the popular press for dissemination wider than humble school newsletters. Nothing too serious. Just participating in the conversation, as it were… And I don’t think it would scandalize anyone to acknowledge that outfits like Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Times of Israel live or die based on the traffic their websites ensnare. They, like every other mainstream media outlet, Netflix, Facebook, Snapchat and the countless other web platforms and apps, are vying for your attention. (Attention is the real currency of the 21st century!)
This being said, these platforms have discovered that outrage seems to work best. So when you submit a piece, very often the editors will manufacture or tweak the headline to gin up controversy and grab those clicks. Once you hit send, what happens next is out of your hands.
So, it was with some trepidation that I clicked on Rabbi Philip Graubart’s piece at eJewishPhilanthropy. “Jewish Day Schools and the Canary Mission”? What connection might Jewish day schools have with the website that curates an ostensible enemies list of the Jewish people? I clutched my pearls (preemptively) and read on… to discover a brief and thoughtful meditation about the purpose of Jewish schooling.
Rabbi Graubart asked what every Jewish educator has asked themselves at some point in their career: What are we trying to accomplish? He asked this question as it related to a student who lost a parent over the summer, and whether he should begin his year with the unit on theodicy, or as he phrased it: “Judaism’s exploration of existential unfairness – why bad things happen to good people.” In the end, he decided that he should go ahead with the unit because it would give his student “a Jewish framework for these questions, and she could explore them with loving peers, and sympathetic teachers.”
As much as Rabbi Graubart’s student benefited from being in a Jewish school and exploring a Jewish framework for answering life’s big questions, what catalyzed this exploration was the experience of sadness and loss. Rabbi Graubart then went on to consider another (inevitable) negative experience – the effort to combat the BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanction) movement on university campuses – and its impact on Jewish learners.
But is that all Jewish education is good for – to be there as a salve for sadness and loss or as a bulwark against antisemitism? Is there nothing in Jewish learning that is also joyful about our tradition or uplifting about our values or celebratory in our history?
Absolutely YES! But, for many traditional educators, leading with joy or uplift wouldn’t be as clickbaity or effective as tragedy or outrage. (As journos so indelicately say:) If it bleeds, it leads – and leads effectively.
Depending on the student, sometimes educators only have learners within a “Jewish framework” for hours a year. We all would agree that the more hours we have to do Jewish learning, the better. However, we must also be cognizant about the framing we’re providing for that Jewish learning. If we send the message that our rich tradition and history are really good and useful when you’re sad or under attack, then one should not be surprised that students strongly associate Jewishness with sadness or strife. We should not avoid the aspects of our tradition and history that are sad or violent, but that’s not the lede. There’s so much more to say about Jewishness and how it makes human existence qualitatively better. Jewish education needs to expand the audience. And we need time to do that.
Even so, as I learned with Times of Israel, once you hit “send,” it’s out of your hands. You could have positive, constructive Jewish learning going on all day, every day, yet once students head off to the various university campuses across North America, they will do their own thing. They will either seek out a Shabbat dinner or host one of their own – or regard Erev Shabbat merely as Friday night. They will either Stand With Us or ask If Not Now – or quietly absent themselves from the conversation. Either way, one can only hope that in the moments leading up to deciding, they hearken back to the Jewish learning and experience they accrued in high school – and make a thoughtful, informed choice. That is our best and only hope.