For the past few weeks, I’ve been privileged to be able to respond to a communal demand for increased Jewish educational programming for adults in Northern Virginia by learning with 20 wonderful adult students. Our class meets at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax (though we offer a remote video option for those who can’t attend in person), and the curriculum on the origins of modern Jewish denominations comes from the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning’s graduate course offerings.
The students and I have been struck by the ways in which the texts we’ve been reading from the 18th-20th centuries resonate so powerfully as modern American Jews. Issues of assimilation, renewal, observance, and law are all still very much part of today’s Jewish discourse, as are conversations between voices arguing for varied approaches to being Jewish in a culture that is constantly and rapidly changing before our eyes.
It is particularly appropriate to offer this course at a community Jewish day school that is not affiliated with any single denomination, and the pluralistic approach is a deeply held value informing Gesher’s philosophy of education. Children who learn to encounter “others” with curiosity and respect will not only learn deep truths about themselves, but will also be well prepared for meaningful encounters in the varied settings they will find themselves in throughout their lives. This pluralistic approach is part of building a more just society, which has always been the mission of the Jewish people. The Hebrew word achrayut (responsibility) includes the root words acher (other) as well as ach (brother).From this we can learn that it is indeed our responsibility to connect with and care for both our family and the other. Schools like Gesher keep the community oriented in this direction.
Offering the course at Gesher has been a win-win for the participants and the school, as Gesher’s strategic plan calls for growth in its ability to serve as an educational resource for all of the NoVA Jewish community, not just children. It also serves a wonderful dugmah (example) of lifelong learning, when our young students see adults coming to the school to engage in Jewish learning.
The course will run for 10 weeks, after which we will gauge interest in another course to be held in the spring. We have already heard from several local partner institutions that they are interested in collaborating to run additional courses together, so it seems likely at this point that we will be able to build from this strong start.
By Dan Finkel
Dan Finkel is head of school at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, Virginia.