Shir Tikvah Pairing Education With Its Values

How do you teach hope? It’s a question Shir Tikvah Rabbi Michael Latz said he was asked recently.

The answer to that question, in part, is what led the Minneapolis Reform synagogue to reimagine its religious school and create the Jewish Academy for Moral Imagination, its new educational experience for children, families, regardless of age, perspective, and background. The program is organized around three central ideas: Hope, courage, and love.

“We are living in this space of what we’ve committed to now and what we aspire to become,” Latz said. “What does hope look like for a 5-year-old? What does hope look like for a 10-year-old? What does hope look like for a 15-year-old? What does hope look like for a guy who, God willing, turns 50 this year?

“We are looking at that and we are playing it out in terms of mining Jewish sources: What are the stories that teach hope? What are the holidays that teach hope?”

While this may be a new and unfamiliar model of a supplemental religious school to some, Latz said he thinks the idea looks radically traditional.

“We’re getting people together to study important Jewish ideas, values, concepts, practices, beliefs, and texts. We’re talking about them together. We’re joining families and kids across the generations on Shabbes and other points during the week,” he said. “And we want people to leave our program, feeling like we’ve tended to their internal spiritual life, that we’ve helped them and fostered a loving community, a supportive community, a community that holds them accountable, and that we’ve given them and taught them the skills to be a moral actor in the universe. Seems to me that that’s what every religious school would want to be doing.”

Forrest Yesnes, Shir Tikvah’s director of youth and family education, said that the synagogue was founded by a community of progressives, and that has maintained throughout the 31 years of its history – and those core values have been kept in view throughout this transformation process. But education wasn’t necessarily in the same progressive place.

“In our justice work, in our radical hospitality, in our worship, there are regularly pieces of progressive values and this idea of meeting tradition with innovative moments, and it feels like education had not yet gotten to that progressive place,” Yesnes said. “We’re not trying to do the same thing on Shabbat that we were doing on Sundays. So it’s not a matter of simply changing the date or time. It’s both how we’re spending time and when we’re gathering, but there was nothing inherently meaningful or progressive around Sunday morning, other than people have been used to Sunday mornings.”

The innovation of the program wasn’t going to happen this year; the plan had been to pilot the program this year with a slow ramp-up to full implementation. But Yesnes likes using the mantra “meeting the moment,” and the leadership group decided the moment was now.

“Frankly, quarantine and the murder of George Floyd, for me, have been two moments that reminded us of the need to meet this moment,” he said. “We can’t just do religious school as usual when these huge, troubling moments and experiences are happening around us and in us. So how do we use our program and our ideas and our tradition to respond and make sense of and move into these moments?”

Yesnes and Latz said that the process to transform the program didn’t come from the top down. The committee of 13 was led by Dana Bennis and Melissa Machovsky.

“We have approached every single decision and every single meeting and every single thing we’re doing with equal parts confidence and enthusiasm on one side, and great humility on the other, with a real openness to feedback and learning and adaptation, both for us internally and from the broader community,” Latz said.

From a curriculum standpoint, Yesnes said that it’ll be a mix of some things that are truly brand new, and others that will be looked at through a different lens.

“We still want people to know blessings and Torah, we still want people to engage with the rituals of holidays, but it’s about how we actually engage with the stuff that matters,” Yesnes said. He used the example of saying Kaddish at a shiva. “That is important. That is a skill that we need to know so we can show up for each other and say Kaddish. If we’re not also teaching, how do you talk to someone who has lost a parent or a friend or a child? How do you show up to those relationships or those gatherings like a funeral or shiva? Then it doesn’t matter that they know Kaddish because they’re not going to do as much meaningful work.”

Yesnes said the committee studied Sukkot, which provided a powerful example of studying beyond the basics of the holiday.

“Sure you can build a sukkah, but if you aren’t examining the number of people who are standing on street corners begging for food or coins, then you have completely misunderstood the concept of Sukkot and welcoming and guests and shelter,” he said. “So it’s just like it’s connecting these dots that I think people are inherently feeling, but need to be reminded and taught and facilitated that our tradition has a lot to say about all of that. And we can really connect the dots in those ways.”

Latz, coming back to the idea of teaching hope, said that to him, it’s not an ethereal concept.”

“I actually think hope is down in the mud. It’s gritty. It’s what happened during the uprising. Hope is what we latched on to during the marriage equality fight,” he said. “Hope is what we look to with our ancestors at the destruction of the temple in 70 CE They had to reimagine what Jewish would look like. And we’re the inheritors of their hope. For us, it’s a process of going from ‘we believe this; now, what does it look like? And how do we walk the talk?”