Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What I'm doing here

"Why are we here?" Always a big question. The chair of my sociology department once suggested at a beginning-of-the-year departmental gathering that this could more easily approached by breaking it into its component questions:
1. Why?
2. Are we here?

(Ah, the humor of the academy.)

But seriously, last night's Hebrew College event (despite Sharon's palpable absence due to weather/airline problems) was a wonderful chance to share some thoughts on "Why rabbinical school?" and "Why Hebrew college?" It's always good to tell and retell our own stories about the choices we have made. And being able to sing for people (despite my voice still not being at full capacity) after having felt somewhat muted was a wonderful reminder of how important that aspect of my work in the world is to me.

Danny Lehmann's visit --and his asking good questions about the school's Israel program-- has also allowed me to articulate another way of thinking about our (my and Alan's) motto that "Israel IS the curriculum." In particular, I said that the school might want to think more about being explicit about the component of the Israel program which is about experiential learning. "Just doing it" and gleaning what we can from our everyday lives is a great start. However, there are also wonderful models of experiential education, learning through adventure, and the like.

After my second year of college, I spent a few months sailing from Boston to the Virgin Islands on a 125' schooner as a participant in the SEAmester program, which at the time was run by Long Island University. One of the "courses" for which we received college credit was called "Navigation and Seamanship." We did have some formal lessons, but much of the course "material" was decidedly hands-on. We did have a final exam though, and as it approached my fellow students and shipmates started asking Captain Bobby Hall what would be on it. His simply answer: "Everything that has happened since you set foot onboard is fair game."

I also found myself recalling my time teaching in the Chicago Field Studies program in which undergrads had a 30-hour-a-week internship and then came to a seminar to learn how to do ethnography. They consistently found that this combination enriched both their learning and their work experience. Even if they weren't intending to be social scientists, a regular practice of taking field notes allowed them to look back at and glean deeper wisdom from their hours on the job (about themselves, their ambitions, the role of work and school in their lives).

This blog is part of my attempt to get the most out of my informal learning this year. Another goal: meeting with "real Israelis" in casual settings (and maybe doing some formal interviews as well). Alan talks about CPE as he runs it being an "action and reflection" model of learning and one dream for the Israel-year component of the rabbinical school would be for this reflection to be better integrated and supported. I really mean it when I say that I learn about Israeli culture as much from being in line at the grocery store as I do from anything I could learn in a classroom. The junk mail is a "cultural text" no less than the latest novel. After all, learning what people think they can sell --what real or perceived needs and desires advertisers are tapping into-- is an important window on any society. And today I was excited to see that a phone book had arrived on my doorstep...what a delicious data set! Another example I reported in our meeting with Danny Lehmann: in my class on "Streams in Modern Judaism" class yesterday, we were reading an article about the Reform movement. The article stated that two million Jews identify as Reform. I didn't do the math in my head, but it sounded about right to me. My Israeli classmates were simply incredulous. Two million Reform Jews?!?! Where were all these strange creatures? So, here the simple reporting of a demographic fact allowed me to learn something about my classmates and their worldview and how different it was from my own.

I have to end this post because my coffee-date (a genuine "real Israeli") will arrive shortly. I will leave you with this picture of my educational setting:

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