Gordon is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, Class I. He is currently serving in his twentieth year as Rabbinic Director at the Milken Community High School of Stephen Wise Temple. Gordon can be reached at gbernat- kunin@milkenschool.org

Imagine a highly accomplished Jewish day school senior on her way to her Harvard interview. As she reviews her activities and achievements, pondering what might make her stand out, her non-Jewish alumni interviewer peruses her file. After forty-five minutes of cordial conversation, the interview comes down to one simple question: “I can see from your file that you have engaged in many challenging Jewish courses and you seem to be part of a thick Jewish culture. You are about to leave your familiar surroundings and enter a rich multicultural arena. As a knowledgeable and identified Jew, what will you contribute to the classroom and the dining hall, the dormitory and the extracurricular arena?”

Jonathan Sarna argues that “ultimately Jewish education serves as the vehicle through which we train successive generations of Jews to negotiate their own way, as Jews, in the American arena.” What does this entail?

In his 1966 essay, “The Blessings of Assimilation in Jewish History,” Dr. Gerson Cohen employs Ahad Ha’am’s distinction between hikkuiy shel hitcharut (competitive imitation) and hitbolelut (assimilation). Whereas the latter leads to the disappearance of the Jewish people and its distinctive culture and worldview, the former enables the healthy appropriation of new forms and ideas for the sake of growth and enrichment. American Judaism’s religious, cultural, and intellectual creativity requires being a part of and apart from American civilization, utilizing prosperity, power, and freedom to creatively adapt or Juda-ize American virtues, such as democracy, pragmatism or pluralism. Just as Judaism has interacted fruitfully with a multitude of majority host cultures in the past, the American-Jewish experiment involves working out what might result from the exceptional encounter between Jewish and American civilizations. 

Building upon this notion of competitive imitation, Jewish identity can be compared to the semi- permeable membrane of a cell. For the cell to thrive, it must cultivate what is vital within, repair its own flaws, adapt salutary external elements, and filter out what is destructive or even benign. To adapt Thomas Mann’s metaphor, the creative artist (like our applicant) can be compared to a fist. If the fist is entirely closed, nothing enters and creativity stagnates. If it is entirely open, everything flows through and there is no creative control. The goal is to achieve that sublime tension, whereby the digits of the hand represent the most vital components of one’s tradition, balancing authenticity and relevance, commitment and openness.

On the one hand, our applicant needs to be rooted in what Michael Rosenak terms Knesset Yisrael– “the Hebrew language, habits of learning Torah, and a readiness to both respond to it and to represent it; as well as “at-homeness” in the text-cycle, in the life-cycle of the Jewish people, and in its land, Eretz Yisrael.” (Visions of Jewish Education) On the other hand, she needs to be capable of integrating Jewish texts, values, and ideas with the burning personal, social, political and theological issues of the day. 

Eugene Borowitz captures the Jewish capacity for confronting a majority American culture in his call for “creative alienation:”

Today, [humanity] needs people who are creatively alienated. To be satisfied with our situation is either to have bad values or to understand grossly what [persons] can do. …Creative alienation implies sufficient withdrawal from our society to judge it critically, but also the way and flexibility to keep finding and trying ways to correct it. I think Jewishness offers a unique means of gaining and maintaining such creative alienation. This was not its primary role in the lives of our parents and grandparents. (The Masks Jews Wear)

In practical terms, what does our day school graduate bring to the classroom and the dining hall, the dormitory and the extracurricular arena? 

Building upon foundational Jewish and general skills, she applies Jewish sources, values, and ideas to the burning issues of the day. She brings sophisticated Jewish, American, and global lenses to contemporary personal ethics, social ethics, bio-ethics, and Israel, along with a host of theological and philosophical questions, such as human nature, a relationship with God, the role of religion, or the problem of evil.

She is experienced in the practice of integration, combining disciplines, identity, character, and action. (In our school, 11th graders can engage in an American Experience program, which combines American History, American Literature, Jewish Law and Ethics, Service Learning and Informal Education; 12th graders can take an integrated seminar on Jewish Thought and AP English Literature). She is a producer and not merely a consumer of Judaism, testing and expanding the extent of her covenantal responsibility. She actively constructs pluralistic community, based on the art of criticism (tochechah), the art of dispute (machloket), and rich participation in interpretive learning communities.