Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager
For many college students, the last sustained engagement they had with Jewish ideas was Hebrew School - and we all know how that can go. But as they become "students of choice" in college, their general curiosity and openness are rekindled, and there is a short window in which they might also reevaluate their relationship to Jewish ideas. We build small cohorts and provide an array of choices as to which books they'd like to read on their free Kindle device - the only "price" is that they read their books and show up, ready and open to discuss.
The Jewish mystical tradition speaks of a gesture of 'tzimtzum' - God's withdrawal from completely filling the world as we know it in order to make space for an "other" - that's us. Within that space, we are invited to make choices, un-coerced. This is where people grow up.
We use the the idea of 'tzimtzum' in the Kindle Your Judaism program in two stages. First, we give people choices as to what books they'd like to read within the genres of Memoirs, Fiction, Israel, the Holocaust, and Living a Jewish Life. This sidesteps any suspicion they have that they are being coerced into taking one or another opinion, whether concerning religious practice, Israel politics, or the viability of living a Jewish life in the 21st century. Avoiding such suspicion becomes particularly relevant within the Israel genre of the program, because students may well suspect that Hillel wants them to absorb an agenda. For example, within the Israel component of the program, the standouts were given a list of suggested books that included "The Prime Ministers," "Like Dreamers," "My Promised Land," and "The Case for Israel" - a varied assortment of books representing an equally varied array of political views on Israel. Students were also told that if there was a book within this genre that they wanted to read that was not on the list, they could request that one as well. One student wanted to read "The Israel Test" (Gilder, Lieberman), and her contributions from this book certainly enhanced the discussion (and also exemplified a strong personal motive to learn more about "the situation" in Israel, which other participants certainly noted).
Second, since the goal of the program is literacy and not advocacy, the facilitated peer-to-peer conversations give students an opportunity to refine the articulation of their own views around important Jewish issues, based upon their own reading and comprehension, rather than based upon what a professor, teacher, or rabbi has claimed to be true. Students know that, within the fairly limited confines of our expectations - read the book, show up to discuss, eat snacks - they are free to relate to the material as they see fit. Their opinions, as long as they are based in literacy, are fair game for conversation.
The emphasis of the Kindle Your Judaism program is neither advocacy not adherence, but literacy. This is intended to empower students to take an informed stance within the important conversations, both public and private, about their Jewish lives and the future of the Jewish people. They are meant to apply this wisdom by insisting on occupying an un-coerced space outside of the opinions and preferences of others within which they can (and should) contemplate and articulate their own views. From this space they can engage in meaningful, informed conversation within a larger community of people who may not share those views. Further they are seeing a living model in which a teacher/convener is intentionally making space for a variety of opinions, thus exemplifying the fading art of informed civil discourse.
An evaluation of the Kindle Program yielded the following responses: "I learned a lot of interesting stuff and had some nice discussions that made me realize how diverse the Jewish community at MIT is. It was overall a very fun experience!" "Made me think about things I wouldn't have thought about. Exposed me to books for the future (i.e. books other members read that I didn't)." "It was really nice hearing so many different takes on the same sets of books. It was a wider perspective than I am used to hearing when discussing Judaism." "It opened me more to discussion, and hearing others' experiences and beliefs. It also enriched my knowledge in Judaism and even about Israel :)" "I started reading Jewish books again, which I hadn't since starting MIT, and it was interesting to hear the different viewpoints and interpretations of Judaism both from the authors and the other discussion attendees." These responses, and others like them, indicate success in reaching our primary goals - increased literacy, exposure to others and their ideas, thought-provoking conversation, making Jewish friends, and generating a sense of Jewish community.
One of the fundamental exegetical moves that we have been discussing over time as a staff is the capacity to take ideas that occur within a religious/theological context and apply them within an interpersonal/ethical context. The idea of tzimtzum that we reference above, for example, is originally presented by the Kabbalists as a description of cosmogony, but it can clearly be applied in the most secular contexts as a model for how we make space for another in relationship. (This a move many thinkers have made.) This approach can be applied to an infinite array of Jewish texts, ideas, and wisdom with intriguing and productive results. We always begin our staff meetings with Jewish text learning. Regardless of where our source material comes from, it always produces useful practices and perspectives for the work we do with our students. This might be taken from the forms of mussar, in which have been reexamining certain character traits that were originally written to express facets of the relationship between humans and the Divine, as also speaking to inter-human relationships. In another semester, our staff study of a variety of commentaries about the weekly Torah reading was pursued with a mind toward extracting lessons and perspectives that can be directly applied to our work. The fact that our staff embraces the universal and timeless nature of Jewish wisdom enhances the authenticity of our endeavors with our students.
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