Our Purim moment lies in Jewish education

  • RabbiWidmonte1
I was sitting at breakfast with a friend whose daughter is enrolled at one of our Jewish schools. He related the following story to me: A week or so ago, a Jewish Studies teacher (whose identity is not known to me) was teaching the class about Purim. During the lesson, the teacher turned to the pupils and asked a stunningly honest question: “Be honest with me: am I boring you?” My friend’s daughter, who has no doubt inherited her parents’ authenticity and confidence, replied: “To be honest, you are. We have learned Purim for the past 10 years – there’s nothing new here!”
by RABBI RAMON WIDMONTE | Mar 01, 2018

While we should all be proud of the teacher’s authenticity and honesty, we should also all tremble at such stories. And, more than tremble, we should act, as a community.

The Jewish community as a whole – including our schools, shuls and myriad communal organisations – is only sustainable if the graduates of our schools are proud of, and want to be part of, our Jewish community – and then become part of it and stay part of it. Our community is not sustainable if the graduates of those schools do not have a positive enough association with their Jewish identity so that they in turn, participate in the community, join shuls and communal organisations, go to Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut events, fund the community, have Jewish families and children, and then send their children back into those schools to begin the cycle again.

Without this, our community is not sustainable in its current form.

We see a growing demographic gap across the board: Generation X, or Gen X, is not attending shul like those of us born in the previous millennium, and Gen X is not funding or leading our communal organisations to the extent that their age-group did in previous generations. Our cycle has been broken.

This is our Purim moment – this is a point where we realise what we need to survive, when we realise what the existential threats and existential opportunities really are. Outstanding Jewish education and educators – for school pupils, young adults and adults – are our opportunity and lifeblood.

For a 21st-century millennial school pupil who becomes a young adult and becomes an old(er) adult, Judaism, Israel and Jewish identity have to be presented in a way completely different to anything done before, and the educators who present these subjects need to come from the best of the incredibly talented people our community has to offer.

All in all, between our major adult education organisations, Jewish schools and shuls, we need a modest number of talented individuals – and those people can drive the sustainability of our community. Those people need the best training available, they need to be encouraged and even inspired to take this as a career path – and we, as a community, need to send a strong message that they are a priority for us. There should be no more respected and valued profession in our community than a Jewish educator; and our children should sense this in the way in which we discuss and relate to those teachers and their “subjects”.

I often say to the Jewish schools with which we consult that their secular subjects need to be superb, but Jewish Studies needs to be their best offering. A Jewish graduate needs to KNOW maths and biology, but they have to LOVE and DO being Jewish, otherwise that school will not be sustainable.

Similarly, for a shul, the brochah needs to be mouth-watering; but the spiritual and identity offerings have to be soul-watering.

This also applied to Zionist education – if our young adults are not Confident on Campus (the title of one of our Academy programmes), will they feel any affinity with Israel, will they ever come to Yom Ha’atzmaut, will they bring their kids?

These priorities need to be rethought in terms of time and resources and, as a community, we need to demand measurable results in these areas.

In the same light, adult educators and rabbis and rebbetzins in shuls should not be viewed with a communally jaundiced eye, as people who “couldn’t get a real job”. That attitude must change. Our adult educators take the graduates of the school system and nurture and develop them further, to the point that they participate in our community as members, funders and leaders, and again ensure our sustainability.

Our rabbis and rebbetzins are educators who can, and should, be offered the training and encouragement to facilitate their vital tasks.

Returning to Purim specifically, one must laud the honesty of that teacher, who was prepared to open themself to a painful truth. But on the other hand, Purim is one of the most relevant, powerful events in our history and it lends itself to the most impactful and diverse set of modes of presentation.

One can learn Purim through drama, art, cooking, fashion, Torah text, modern-day politics, film, ethics and music – the list of age-appropriate presentations doesn’t end. It’s also amazing fun and should be one of the highlights of Judaism, serving as a carnival of meaning and joy in being Jewish.

For older (adult and teen) community members, we could introduce various activities leading up to Purim, as well as on the day: do a trial session of Krav Maga and learn Torah attitudes to self-defence; watch the film, The Pianist, and contrast it both to movies such as Black Panther or Operation Thunderbolt as well as to the Tanach’s presentation of David and Goliath, to discuss narratives around power and powerlessness (great excuse to watch movies); hold a discussion about US President Donald Trump’s stated plan to build a wall between the US and Mexico and his hardline stance on immigrants, comparing it with the issue of the Sudanese migrants in Israel and attempts to get them to leave, and learn the Torah approach to sensitivity to the “stranger”; host an art session around perceptions of beauty in society (in relation to Queen Vashti in the Purim story and beauty competitions) and raise gender and self-image issues in Torah and western society; meet with a psychologist/sociologist and explore the hierarchies of power and assimilation in immigrant societies (perhaps look at xenophobia in South Africa?); and discuss the dynamics of a society based on rights and taking (such as in Shushan) versus the Jewish concept of a society based on mutual support (tzeddakah) after packing mishloach manot at the Chev with our kids.

For younger students, we could teach resilience against anti-Semitism and segue into self-esteem and bullying issues; create Megillot with a sofer and learn to do calligraphic Hebrew (half art, half Hebrew); bake homentashen with a celebrity chef – kids could do this with their parents while learning what the triangle means (maybe reflect on the fact that in Europe, Jews had to wear a triangle on their clothes?); do some chesed on Purim for Jews and non-Jews (matanot la’evyonim?) and emphasise the need for lifelong commitment to tzeddakah; and, in a music class, we could “create your own Purim song”.

I don’t mean to imply that none of this is being done. We have a team of highly committed, passionate Jewish education professionals in South Africa. However, they need support and training; their “subject” needs to be prioritised in terms of time, resources and our attitudes; metrics need to be produced on key success factors; they need to be remunerated commensurate with successful professionals in other fields; and they need, more than anything, our confidence and affirmation. For they are at the coalface of our future.

I conclude by paraphrasing Mordechai’s powerful challenge to Esther: “Who knows if it is not for this very moment that we have reached where we are?”

While we still can, we need to ensure our future – and we still can.

  • Rabbi Ramon Widmonte is dean of The Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning. For details, visit



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