Congregational Rabbis as Facilitators, Co-Learners, and Community Builders

tauber_sarahIn a culture where spiritual seeking is often prioritized over religious practice, how do rabbis respond to the ambivalences, confusions, and journeys of contemporary adults who are willing still to look to Judaism as a source of wisdom? How do rabbis initiate conversations that respect the multiplicity of voices from the adults they encounter while still calling on the font of knowledge that they posses as clergy?

Over several years I conducted ethnographic research with three congregational rabbis who possess reputations as outstanding adult educators. Rabbis Jonathan Fisk, Rina Lewin, and Eric Miller led Reform and Conservative synagogues of between five hundred and eight hundred households.[1] I attended their adult education classes, participated in their worship services and synagogue activities. Central to the process were the interviews with them and their learners. My research generated valuable findings and implications for our understanding of rabbis as 21st century adult educators and communal leaders. In particular, three paradigms emerged to conceptualize the congregational rabbi’s role:

  • Rabbis as facilitators
  • Rabbis as co-learners
  • Rabbis as community builders

These categories of facilitator, co-learner, and community builder do not reflect a hierarchy of importance. Instead, they represent a move from an exploration of teaching approaches (facilitation) toward teaching style (co-learner) and, finally, to teaching aims (community building). The approaches, styles, and aims each express particular aspects of the congregational rabbi’s identity as a teacher of adults, while taken together they constitute a dynamic and interrelated whole.

Rabbis as Facilitators

As facilitators, rabbis articulate an egalitarian, anti-hierarchical vision of themselves as teachers. They embrace their adult learners’ right to be fully respected as learners regardless of the depth or kind of Jewish content knowledge. They also strive to help their learners gain new levels of Jewish insight, perspective, and engagement. Achieving these kinds of knowledge is far more important than acquiring only the basics of textual or ritual competency. Rather, it calls for intrapersonal and interpersonal growth in one’s connections to Judaism. Yet given the extent to which rabbis can exert even an unintended influence on their learner-congregants by virtue of their clergy identity, the rabbi-as-facilitator treads on potentially fragile terrain, at least initially. What are the qualities demonstrated by rabbis when they strive to relate to their learners as facilitators?

Being approachable, moderating discussion, modeling open-ended questioning, and guiding text study incorporate a variety of strategies that support an egalitarian teaching ethos rather than a hierarchical one. At the center of this repertoire, however, reside several deeply embedded values. These include an embrace of a democratic learning environment, an appreciation of the complexity of Jewish tradition, and a commitment to the dignity of every learner. Trust is at the heart of this value system. The quality of trust that the rabbis cultivate in their teaching reflects a profoundly spiritual orientation toward their interactions with their learners. Through such emunah, they bring a sacred dimension to their role as facilitators. It is one, moreover, whose sources reach deep into the heart of Judaism’s awareness of the holiness in our relations with God and with our fellow human beings.

Rabbis as Co-Learners

When rabbis say that they are teachers, embedded in that identity is a commitment to learning as a sacred activity. For congregational rabbis, however, the leadership, administrative, and pastoral demands of the rabbinate may leave them too little time to study. Rabbis who put education at the center of their rabbinate make intentional choices about sustaining learning as a sacred and essential aspect of their congregational leadership. Most importantly as co-learners they model learning as a collaborative process.

Fundamental to being co-learners who share perplexities and pose difficult questions is modeling how to listen. The skills required for listening cannot be overstated. Nor can the outcomes for their learners. As listeners, the rabbis participate in discussions rather than dominate them. They show their willingness to learn from fellow adults. These adults include those who possess even minimal formal Jewish textual knowledge, but whose secular learning, life experiences, and personal motivation enrich the study. The knowledge gained is part of a dynamic whereby the rabbis seek to generate critical reflection, personal relevance, and communal participation. Transmission of a predetermined content over a specified period of time through lecture, or a drive to cover a preset curriculum is not the dominant concern of the rabbis.

By viewing themselves as co-learners, rabbis model a rabbinic identity that emphasizes humility as a moral and spiritual quality. Being a rabbi whose teaching style embodies the qualities of a co-learner requires humility. The corpus of biblical and especially rabbinic literature highly valorizes it as a spiritual attribute. As members of the clergy, such humility is essential to their educator identity. Rather than reinforce a hierarchical relationship that creates dependency for their adult learners, these rabbis identify themselves as fellow Jews engaged in a transformative quest. In the process, they pursue an ongoing discovery of self and others in relation to faith, belief, and religion. It focuses on understanding religion as a spiritually inspired way of life.

Rabbis as Community Builders

For the rabbis in my research, the motor at the core of community building is education. The rabbis see the construction of community through teaching and learning as a central aim of their rabbinic mission. They lead synagogues where education and community exist in a mutually reciprocal relation to each other. To keep this motor running, they teach regularly and frequently to small- and medium-sized groups of adults. These learning groups foster personal and communal attachments. The rabbis forge strong interpersonal bonds with their learners. They create an environment that encourages relationships among the learners. These groups function as miniature communities within the larger congregation. In them the rabbis model ways of engaging with Judaism that invite and cultivate communal belonging.

Because they meet regularly, the groups develop their own history. By incorporating stories (their own, their learners’, and those that are part of Jewish tradition, Jewish texts, and Jewish contemporary life), the rabbis and learners jointly craft a coherent and compelling narrative of Jewish communal life. This narrative extends beyond each group. It nourishes the synagogue’s story more broadly. Learning together also empowers the adults to grow as Jews. It stimulates congregants to participate as members of a community for whom learning together infuses a sense of transcendent meaning into their lives.

Community building expresses an overarching aim of the rabbis’ teaching. It is here where their identities as synagogue leaders and religious educators merge most evidently. The work of community building reveals the democratic ethos inherent in their facilitator and co-learners roles. It orients their learners towards a sense of adult agency. As givers and receivers within their synagogues, adults discover that learning can transform them. It empowers them to contribute to the vitality of their communities. Through learning, the past and present are explored together so that their multilayered meanings become embedded in a collective consciousness. Moreover, when rabbis build community through education with their congregant-learners, the potential for transformation reaches beyond the current generation. It affirms the potential for a religious tradition to constantly renew itself as a vital force rather than as a static relic of the past.

Where To Now?

Anyone concerned with the position and purpose of rabbis who aspire to bring education into the forefront of their work with adults must take bold steps to clearly articulate why rabbis continue to matter as educational leaders for adult populations in their communities and even in the broader American context. If they fail to do so in this “do-it-yourself” hyper-connected world, people will search elsewhere for existential and transcendent wisdom, guidance, and meaning. Rabbis will put their own relevance into question. Correspondingly, the capacity for Judaism as a dynamic religious and spiritual tradition to participate constructively and humanely in any public discourse will inevitably wane.

The openness and vibrancy I encountered in the three rabbis and their congregations filled me with hope. The frequency of the face-to-face relationships that they supported struck me as verging on revolutionary, given that our culture seems to be catapulting itself in the opposite direction. While the rabbis I researched most certainly sustain the centrality of the study of sacred texts to their teaching, relationships are at the heart of the adult learning enterprise: relationships with and among their learners, with the texts, and with God and Jewish tradition (however one understands the terms “God” and “tradition”). It is through these relationships that the knowledge comes alive for many of their learners. Rabbis embody the capacity of an ancient civilization to value the past, live fully in the present, and chart a flourishing future. This is no easy undertaking. How they do so through the practice of education and most especially in partnership with adults may very well determine the resiliency of Judaism and Jewish communal life in the 21st century.

Sarah M Tauber is Assistant Professor of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. She is the author of the recently published book, Open Minds, Devoted Hearts: Portraits of Adult Religious Educators (Pickwick Publications, 2015) that focuses on rabbis and clergy as adult educators and from which this article is excerpted.

[1]These names are pseudonyms to protect the identity of the rabbis and their congregations.

Is this post useful and interesting? Please consider sharing it with your social networks, and leave a comment below telling us your thoughts!