New Education Focus On Old-School Civics


At last year’s Jewish Futures Conference, the theme of which was “Hacking Happiness,” psychologist Dan Ariely argued that “happiness comes from a sense of purpose, meaning and contribution to others.” It should come as no surprise, then, that this year’s conference shifted outward to look at how Jewish civics education can “elevate American democracy.”

“Clearly, the political climate, the social climate, the civil discourse climate all led us to think this was an important topic, and we also think it’s a topic that Jewish educators don’t often think about,” said David Bryfman, chief innovation officer at The Jewish Education Project, which puts on the annual one-day conference in partnership with Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.

“Often they [educators] are more concerned about how can we make us better off as a Jewish people, make the Jewish community stronger, and we thought it’s time for Jews to also begin to look outwardly and how can we make America or our civil society a stronger one as well,” he said.

The panels at the conference, held on Dec. 13 at New York University, focused on not just how to teach civics education in a Jewish context but also on how Jewish wisdom, tradition and values can contribute to improving the broader societies in which Jews live.

In the opening session, Tamara Tweel, who teaches civics at Columbia University and is director of strategic development at the Hillel Office of Innovation, pointed out that in Jewish tradition, freedom is not “simply a natural occurrence,” but one that must be secured through laws and institutions.

As Jews, she said, “Our freedom was not secured when we left slavery, it was not secured when wandering in the desert. It was secured at Sinai. It was secured when we entered into a covenant that endowed us with a framework to live well together, to govern ourselves with self-restraint and communal obligations.”

Because “this kind of political freedom requires an extraordinary amount of self-discipline,” Tweel said, it’s vital that educators prepare students for that responsibility.

In America today, she argued, the basic confidence in and belief that government is designed for the people by the people has been eroded; currently only 20 percent of Americans believe they can trust the government. This trust has been eroded due to international forces including globalization and war and also due “to a history of policy decisions that have led to an almost universal disappearance of national service and civic education” as well as “an incarceration rate that presents our government as an entity that easily seizes freedom rather than seeks to preserve it.”

“Our current political system … does not promote a national commitment to political participation. The majority of Americans do not serve and do not vote. We have abandoned governing ourselves,” Tweel said. 

Jewish tradition, however, has rituals built into it that can address this growing lack of a sense of communal responsibility, she said, including a ritualized focus on origin stories and on forgiveness.

“What would it look like if every family … celebrated “Constitution Day?” Tweel asked. “What would a national day of atonement and forgiveness look like?”

“It is up to you,” Tweel concluded, “to teach our children that we are uniquely blessed to be a people who were conceived in liberty, living in a country conceived in liberty and that it is our civic duty, and perhaps our sacred duty, to take responsibility for this fragile heritage and preserve it before it breaks.”

“Our current political system … does not promote a national commitment to political participation. The majority of Americans do not serve and do not vote. We have abandoned governing ourselves.”

Joel Westheimer, research chair in democracy and education at the University of Ottawa, noted that in America, the whole reason public education was created was to allow people to participate in self-governance.

Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, he said, “If the people are not educated enough to govern their own affairs, the solution is not to take that power of governance away from them … but to educate them.” When the United States was born, democracy was a new idea to most people, he said. “Now we’re in a period where the very success of that experiment is being called into question,” he said, with the rise of “anti-democratic leaders” around the world. Civics education has been marginalized as the focus on standardized test preparation grows.

However, he said, while it’s a “very difficult time for democracy in America,” it’s also a “moment of opportunity.”

“Civic engagement is up, watching the news is up. Yes, we’re lost in our echo chambers of information but there are many, many young people engaged,” he said.

“Civic engagement is up, watching the news is up. Yes, we’re lost in our echo chambers of information but there are many, many young people engaged.”

In an interview after his talk, Westheimer said educators can make a difference. “I’ve seen fantastic programs where educators completely transform kids … helping them to be the best kind of person they can be and strengthen democratic society simultaneously.”

Just as the political climate inspired The Jewish Education Project to make civic engagement the theme of the conference, it was the current political climate that inspired many of the more than 325 educators who came to the conference.

Rabbi Mick Fine, director of Hebrew-language curriculum and instruction at Beit Rabban Day School, said that for him “it was very important to consider” how the next generation of Jewish people “can effect change” and “create a world that reflects our values.”

Daniel Gordon, associate national director of development at NCSY, called the topic of the conference “critical.”

“I think it’s an issue that if you deal with teenagers and if you deal with anybody in the … education space it’s a conversation that needs to be had. Is it complicated? Absolutely. Is it complex? Certainly. But all those things are reasons that we should have the conversation and not shy away from it.”

Matt Williams, managing director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive, said that he came because, “A number of Jewish organizations that I work with are really invested in understanding what it means to be a Jew in America at this particular moment and the question of civic engagement is inescapably a part of what it is they care about.”

But, he said, “they’re not sure how to navigate it within what is a very fraught political context. … Everyone is looking for answers and this is a conference where we can begin to address some of these issues.”