A Lifetime of Jewish Learning
Pictured: Washington DC 13 in Utah at the 2013 New Member Institute.
The wildflower-dotted mountains of Snowbird, Utah were the perfect backdrop for the 2013 Wexner New Member Institute, but as I gazed out the clear glass expanse of the large windows to marvel at the mountains’ majesty, I couldn’t shake the woozy feeling in my head. Probably the altitude, I told myself as I heeded the urging of the Jewish mother in me to “drink, drink, drink” and poured yet another glass of ice water from the overflowing metal pitcher on the table. But the dazed feeling didn’t diminish even after I adjusted to the thin mountain air and it occurred to me that my wooziness probably had less to do with my lung intake and more to do with my brain intake.
Indeed, my brain was buzzed, stimulated, energized, inspired. Not something I felt – at least not to that extent — in my “regular” life. Sure I’m engaged in learning every day — for my job, as a parent, as a spouse. But somehow this felt different. After all, when was the last time I — or any of my Wexner Heritage cohorts in the Washington, D.C., Dallas, or Cincinnati groups — spent five days learning…and learning…and learning like this, I wondered? When was the last time any of us spent day after day, for hours on end, pouring through ancients Hebrew and Aramaic texts, delving into the philosophical discourses of modern religious scholars, and engaging in highly academic and intellectual discussions about our purpose in the universe and the Jewish community? Was it last year? Twenty-five years ago? Never?
Jews are known as the people of the book – a learned people — but even those of us who attended Hebrew School or Day School often don’t get past a second, or eighth, or twelfth grade level of Jewish education. In essence, we live our Jewish lives based on a child’s perspective of Judaism. How often are we able to take the time away from our busy lives to engage, question, and understand more deeply our heritage on an adult’s level? If our Judaism defines who we are no matter our background or denomination, and if we value the religion and culture entrusted to us, shouldn’t the notion of continuing the curiosity, questioning, and learning be commonplace in our lives? Isn’t continued learning – from the perspective of a mature and hungry mind – the best way to create rich Jewish communities and relationships?
At the NMI Rabbi Elka Abrahamson challenged us to tithe our Jewish leadership by dedicating four hours each week to transformational leadership in the Jewish community. What if we were to extend that call to arms to Jewish learning as well? Regular Jewish learning allows us to appreciate that our history and tradition carries lessons for the present and future. It links us to a living past, unites us with those around us as we build and sustain community, and offers a language of enduring meaning and connection to future generations. What’s more, it impacts our inner universe, leading to self-understanding and self-confidence as a Jew.
I realized what a wonderful gift I was given over the week in Utah: A reminder of how important it is to remain engaged in a lifetime of Jewish learning… beyond that one week in August or the two years of learning we are about to begin. It seems clear that our Wexner experience will change the way we view our responsibilities to ourselves, our families, and our Jewish communities. It will, indeed, be a transformative experience.
Sharon Mazel, a member of the Washington, D.C. 13 Wexner Heritage Program, is a journalist and author. She is on the Executive Committee and Board of the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy and serves as the Chair of the Education Committee. She is also involved in many other community, synagogue, and Federation committees and boards.