Posted on May 21st, 2016

Finding Balance

Fifteen years ago I was riding on an elevator chatting with a colleague. “I finally got the nerve up,” she told me, “to tell my childhood educator how frustrated I still am with the Jewish education he gave me.” She then told the story of how her religious school years included challah braiding, Israeli dancing and lots of choices integrating art, music, and theater. “We had lots of fun,” she told me, “but we learned nothing.” She told me how she felt like a fool in college – feeling very connected to Judaism, but knowing so little about it. When she confronted this Jewish educator, he smiled and said to her, “But don’t you see? We were completely successful. You are here, standing in front of me as a newly ordained rabbi.” As she stepped out of the elevator she turned back and said to me and said “after all these years, it is so annoying that he still doesn’t get it.”

The HUC-JIR Executive Masters Program asks students to identify and grapple with an “enduring dilemma” – dilemmas that are simultaneously old and new, can only be managed and not solved, and are very much a part of our day-to-day realities. There is no “right” answer to these dilemmas. My friend’s educator was correct – his method worked and inspired her to continue a Jewish life. Yet my friend is also correct – she didn’t learn enough to make her feel confident taking part in that life.

In my work at URJ bringing NFTY to 6th-8th graders, or creating new camps with the Foundation for Jewish Camp Specialty Camp Incubator, it is this tension that keeps me up at night. We have developed strategies for managing it – language to explore the relationship of specialties to specific Jewish concepts and teachings, models for bringing in “Jewish framing” activities before days at the amusement park, empowering staff/mentors to teach relevant Jewish text in impromptu moments. Sometimes, I get so busy counting heads in beds and kids at programs that I convince myself that simply getting them to show up is “success.” And sometimes, I get so obsessed with teaching history, text, and rituals that I forget that Judaism is about living, and not just knowing. When I tip the scale too far to one side, the experiences are shallow; when I tip the scale too far to the other side, the experiences are irrelevant.

Mitchell Salem Fisher’s creative translation of K’dushat HaShem in Mishkan T’fillah urges us to pray:

Disturb us Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency…. Disturb us O God and vex us….

Like any good enduring dilemma, success lies not in solving the problem, but in keeping the tension alive; in keeping ourselves ruffled, disturbed and vexed. I have come to believe that it is only when I am overly confident that I have solved the problem, that I have actually failed. There needs to be meaningful Jewish content that creates impactful curriculum and there needs to be emotional engagement that gives participants agency over their own journey – and I need to hold myself back from ever being too confident that I have found the perfect balance.

Michelle Shapiro Abraham is the Director of Program Development for the Campaign for Youth Engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) since 2014, as well as a consultant for the Foundation for Jewish Camp, and a clinical faculty member in the HUC-JIR Executive Master’s Program in Jewish Education. Michelle was a recipient of the 2015 Covenant Foundation Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.