Last November, I went to my first session of the School Leaders’ Forum (SLF). It was a chilly and dark night and I really, really didn’t want to go out. The kids were clinging onto my legs and even the dog was staring at me forlornly. My husband was lounging on the couch in front of the blazing fireplace and Netflix beckoned. But I unclasped the kids from my ankles and ran out the door before they could jump back on.
During the drive to the meeting, I decided that if the kids got up to any shenanigans while I was out then I would confiscate all their electronics and make them play board games with me instead. I like spending time with my kids, but it can be hard to create the kind of simple unplugged family time I believe is valuable. And it’s not like the grown-ups in our house don’t like screens either, we certainly do, and after school everyone is tired; and the weekends are full of programs and playdates and organized excursions, and after all, how much family downtime do we even need?
All this was going through my mind as I dragged myself to the inaugural session of the 2018-19 SLF which sounded like a drag but, in fact, it blew my mind and changed the way I think about all kinds of things, particularly how to parent my kids, our school and community, the meaning of leadership, my connection to Judaism and what that means to my relationship with my family.
The SLF is like a graduate seminar, with all of the exciting intellectual stimulation and with none of the stress and exams. It follows a structured curriculum developed by the Lola Stein Institute in partnership with the Shalom Hartman Institute, a curriculum so specific and intentional and expressive that I don’t even know how to describe it, beyond saying that it answers so many questions that we didn’t even know we had but now we don’t know how we got this far without asking them.
This year’s topic was “The Future of the Jewish Past,” informed by the book Shuva by Yehuda Kurtzer. Broadly, the central issues of this book and our conversation are: what about historical and biblical Judaism is meaningful to our 21st century lives, and how do we determine the shape of our own traditional, religious, or cultural practices within the modern world.
What is so refreshing and special about this forum is that the conversations are frank. So frequently in institutional settings controversial subjects or conversations are discouraged: some subjects are considered disruptive or distasteful and the answers often sound stale and dogmatic. The lecturers of the SLF – rabbis, academics, activists, usually a combination thereof – are not only comfortable with but invite unconventional questions about identity and faith; they are enthusiastic about issues surrounding parenting and the particular challenges of raising children Jewishly while navigating social media, baffling global politics, and environmental concerns.
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It’s true that there is often a fissure between Jewish life and “real” life, and what is so important about this forum is that it acknowledges the legitimacy of our contemporary reality as part of our Judaism, not separate from it. Like screen time, for instance; video games andsocial media: can we partition these issues as separate from our religious practice, or is there a way to integrate our tradition and culture and practices with our modern identities? Or to think of it more specifically: is it really psychologically healthier or more meaningful to play board games with my kids instead of Mario Kart? Or are family activities something that evolve with the generations, in the same way that parents and children and our understanding of Judaism all shift with time, and there are no objective answers to the question what is better?
Everyone in the SLF is a parent. Some have young families and some are grandparents now as well. We are the community who believes in raising children within Judaism, but we don’t all share the same definition of what that entails, nor are any of us ever certain of the “right” way to be a family. Any parent who volunteers in a leadership role at a Jewish day school or supplementary school is eligible: we are board members, PTA co-ordinators, event planners, hot lunch organizers. During my time as a chair of the parent committee at Heschel, I have discovered that volunteering does not come for free. People need gratification in return for their contributions of time and energy, and I cannot think of a better reward for volunteering at the school than being invited to participate in this forum. To me, the fact that this forum exists is such a great acknowledgement that our anxieties and challenges and experiences are important.
Towards the end of one session late in the winter, one participant, a father of young children, suddenly blurted out “should I pretend to believe in God in front of my children?” Inwardly, I winced. Was that an appropriate thing to say in front of everyone? But the rabbi smiled. He loved that question.