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University of Maryland hosts inter-denominational conference on Jewish literacy
Washington Jewish Week / October 1, 2008

By Larry Luxner

Eighty scholars representing four institutions of higher learning and every main branch of Judaism gathered at the University of Maryland in College Park last week, with the elusive aim of defining what Jewish literacy is and what role it should play in improving the quality of Jewish education around the world.

Kippot, daily prayers and strictly kosher food were very much in evidence during the Sept. 21-24 event, "Promoting Jewish Literacy in Educational Settings," co-sponsored by UM, Israel's Bar-Ilan University, Yeshiva University and Hebrew Union College (HUC).

But it also attracted non-Orthodox academics as well.

"I thought it was a very 21st-century conference," said Michael Zeldin, director of HUC's Rhea Hirsch School of Education in Los Angeles. "We had a major American secular university, two Orthodox universities and a Reform seminary all sitting down together to talk about Jewish literacy. That in itself is already a sign of change, and bodes well for the future of the Jewish people."

Added UM professor Avital Feuer, who gave a talk on informal Jewish education at Hebrew-speaking summer camps: "As a language educator, I found it really interesting to learn about historical traditions of literacy teaching, and also disucss with today's educators about the struggles they have implementing Jewish literacy curricula in their schools."

Attendance was equally divided between Americans and Israelis, with a particularly strong contingent from Bar-Ilan University, a religious institution of 26,000 students in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat-Gan. Around 60 papers were presented during the four-day seminar, which also included a jazz concert by Israeli musician Omer Klein and the screening of David Ofek's documentary film, "The Hebrew Lesson."

Bar-Ilan professor David Resnick, whose topic was "A Maryland Case Study in Religous School-Community Crisis," said the conference couldn't have come at a more important time.

"Deciding what Jewish education should be in our contemporary world is a challenge common to both American Jewish and Israeli educators," said Resnick. "In this age of Internet, universalism and pluralism, it's not clear to a lot of people that you need a separate Jewish identity. And that's the challenge for Jews all over the world."

Hanan Alexander, a philosophy professor at the Jewish Education University of Haifa, said he attended the event so he could share with colleagues a philosophical view of Jewish literacy based on the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Marx.

"Literacy is not a singular term. You really have to talk about literacies," explained Alexander, who's also affiliated with the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. "We become literate as Jews to become closer to God. A second view is that to be literate is to belong, and to follow certain customs. A third view is that we educate for literacy in order to help people make rational choices. And the final view is the radical or Marxist view, that literacy helps us to understand oppression."

UM history professor Bernard Dov Cooperman organized the first-of-its-kind gathering from this end, and Bar-Ilan's Yisrael Rich from the Israeli side.

"This conference had three objectives: to discuss and analyze in comparative terms Jewish education, culture, literacy and the methods of evaluating and promoting it," Cooperman told WJW. "The second aim was to bring together scholars from many different universities and disciplines. There are people here from every movement in Judaism. This is very hard to do, because almost all of Jewish education is done in strictly denominational terms. And third, to actually try to create a momentum for the professionalization of Jewish studies."

Cooperman said the University of Maryland is a logical partner for Bar-Ilan, considering that some 6,500 students more than 20% of its student body identify as Jews. In addition, the university, whose library has more than 300,000 volumes of Judaica, offers one of the best-developed Jewish studies programs in the United States.

"Bar-Ilan's school of education is the largest in Israel, and we have a very large Jewish student body and a fine school of education," he said. "In that sense, we saw the opportunity to have a cooperative venture with such a relevant institution."

Rich, originally from Chicago, said the conference had been in the making for a year and a half, and that Bar-Ilan financed the lion's share of the $100,000 project, with professors paying their own way from Israel. The event also featured "Six Directions"  an exhibit of 30 paintings, drawings and other works by Israeli artists, all of them incorporating the Magen David (Star of David) as a recurring symbol of Jewish identity.

Rich said he and his colleagues would like to create a framework for Jewish educational institutions worldwide to measure the extent of Jewish learning, through surveys, questionnaires and other tools.

"When you provide math education to a child, you want to know that by the third grade, for example, that the child knows how to do multiplication tables," he said. "When you teach a child something about the Bible, you want to know by the end of a certain time if he actually knows something.

"But we don't know what these children have actually learned," Rich continued. "At one time there were only Orthodox schools. Now there are Reform and Conservative schools, and in Israel too. There's a true sense of something going astray. Our feeling is that if we're able to measure what these kids have learned, we ourselves will learn about the quality of the Jewish education we're providing them."

He added: "At one time, we believed that the more Jewish education kids have, the more likely they'll remain affiliated with the Jewish community. But what we're finding is that a reasonably large percentage of young [religious] Jews are also leaving the fold, because the quality of Jewish education is really not that meaningful."

Dr. Annette Labovitz, author of a paper entitled "The Effective Use of Holy Stories to Achieve Jewish Cultural Literacy," said she doesn't regret making the trip from Woodmere, N.Y., to attend the meeting.

"I'm thrilled that Jewish educators are beginning to deal with the problem of setting standards," said Labovitz, formerly director of resources for the Miami-based Central Agency for Jewish Education. "We're dealing with a lot of illiteracy, and this was the first conference of its type to tackle the problem."

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