The relevance of Jewish Studies
Connecting Jewish Studies to the World
By Cody Bahir Ph.D, Dean of Jewish Studies
Reading Micah Levin’s recent opinion piece, “The irrelevance of day school Jewish studies, and how to fix the problem,” inspired me to tell my own story of growth as a Jewish Studies teacher. I smile as I remember when I first started teaching twenty years ago when, like Micah who was “a novice teacher with payes, a long beard and lots of nerves,” my side curls were freshly cut, and my black hat had been replaced by a knit kippah.
My first teaching job entailed creating a beit midrash program at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles to help supplement the text courses taught by the core faculty. The goal of this program was to strengthen the student’s text skills and enable them to study Biblical and Rabbinic texts in their original languages, independently. I remember going over the syllabus—that the late Rabbi Richard Levy z”l closely proofread for me—on the first day of class as my hands trembled and attempted to articulate to the students what, exactly, they would learn in this class. As we went over the definitive learning outcomes, expectations, and objectives covered in the syllabus, my students looked at me like I was from another planet. Like Micha, I was concentrating on the material itself, rather than where and when my students were living.
Despite this awkward start, the semester was a great success, and my trial, single-semester contract was extended, and the beit midrash continued. The faculty noted that their students’ text skills had indeed improved in ways that they had not before, and the students enjoyed traditional textual learning. My ability, as I saw it, to bring Hasidic yeshivah style learning to Reform Rabbinical students led me to believe that I had mastered breaking down denominational barriers, and that I could replicate this success elsewhere. So, I decided to try my hand at teaching younger students at a Hebrew School affiliated with a Reform congregation in the San Fernando Valley. After sending them my resume, I was invited by the synagogue’s director of education, who was also a Reform rabbi, for an interview.
Or at least I thought it was an interview. After the usual small-talk and introductory remarks, it became clear that I had been invited for a lesson. The rabbi pulled out my resume and we closely looked it over. He focused on my skills and abilities, which included things like “Fluent in Galician Yiddish,” “Advanced Babylonian, Palestinian, and Zoharic Aramaic,” and other things that I believed (at the time) to be exceptionally impressive. He then asked me a single question, “How will you make this relevant to our kids?”
For the next twenty years, that rabbi’s question guided my pedagogy at every turn. I now serve as the Dean of Jewish Studies at Kehillah Jewish High School and ask this question of the faculty I guide in creating a learning experience with a depth of tradition, text, and relevance. “How will you make this relevant to our kids?”
Our teachers have too many answers to this question to compile a list within this space that does their efforts any justice, but I can offer a few illustrations:
• In one of our Holocaust classes, we ask students to ponder what kind of citizen they would have been had they lived in Germany during WW2. Would they have fought as a partisan? Remained silent? Fled? And what does this choice say about who they are now, how they relate to their own world in the twenty-first century, and what sort of person they want to become.
- • In our Introduction to Jewish Studies 101 course, our students adopt three practices related to Shabbat for 25 hours, adapt them to fit their own lifestyle, and report on how the alteration and application of those practices transformed their personal world during that time.
- • When analyzing Biblical and Talmudic texts related to indentured servitude, my own students have explored parallels to the exploitation of fruit vendors on the streets of Palo Alto, truck drivers on the docks of Long Beach, and chain gangs in the American South.
- • In our beit midrash courses, students get the chance to compose their own homiletic and halachic midrashim or author their own Talmudic sugya on a contemporary social issue of their choice.
Reflecting on the extraordinary way Kehillah has crafted the offerings within Jewish Studies, I also see our expectation that students discover particular areas within the overarching discipline of Jewish Studies that resonate with them. In co-constructing the learning process and asking our students to engage in exploring relevance, we align with the developmental needs of adolescents to deepen their identity.
We are proud that Kehillah’s student-centered pedagogy takes this approach. We recognize that the difficulty in doing so is rooted in the pull toward a habitual way of learning Jewish texts, commonplace in certain sectors of the Jewish world. I was a part of that world but I came to understand that I was behind the curve. Pluralistic and progressive Jewish educational institutions realized long ago that studying a Talmudic passage in the original Aramaic, about a world they have no connection to, probably won’t make Jewish teens in Northern California fall in love with Jewish Studies, hungry to learn more, or eager to deepen their identity.
At Kehillah Jewish High School, we make sure that our students make personal—and relevant—connections to what they learn. As a school unafraid of being both innovative and aspirational, Kehillah has been doing this for decades. Perhaps it is no surprise that Mr. Levin’s growth as an educator happened at Kehillah. We are grateful to have been such a place for him.