First and Third, One Man Out

In the same week the Jewish world lost one of the great educators of our time, Jonathan Woocher, I had my own educational epiphany, the result of a most-unlikely happenstance. The precedent details are too boring to explain, except to say that on the evening of July 4th I found myself in the stands of a summer collegiate baseball game in beautiful Wahconah Park, Pittsfield, MA. Accompanying me that evening was, among others, a decorated war hero of the Israeli Army, a sophisticated gentleman whose cosmopolitan bona fides are second to none. I mention his worldliness to underscore my surprise when I learned that theretofore he had never been to a baseball game, nor was he at all familiar with any of its rules, customs, or traditions. Keep in mind this was not a cloistered soccer-obsessed Israeli, but rather a well-travelled citizen of the world. Nonetheless, as unlikely an eventuality as it seemed to me, my new friend was totally unfamiliar with, and unappreciative of, what, since 1856, has been America’s pastime.

Through some cosmic serendipity and the intercession of a mutual friend, it fell to me to be his teacher that night. And believe me, it did not start well. Though he admitted knowing nothing about the sport, he was nonetheless, quite sure it was boring, and not worth his energy. After some time, however, his intellect and native curiosity got the best of him and he allowed me to introduce him to the ins and outs of the game.

As a fan since childhood, it never occurred to me that baseball was complicated or potentially off-putting. Only through the eyes of my Israeli friend did I come to appreciate the nuance. Balls and strikes – why are pitches out of the strike zone called balls, when the spheroid in question is also called a ball? And why are foul balls, strikes, except after the second one? Why are there three men at first base (it never dawned on me to explain the presence of the coach)? Why must a runner return to the base if, with less than two outs, his teammate hits a fly ball that is caught, while a ball hit on the ground during similar circumstances obligates him to run to the next base? And so on through the innings. I tried to read his mind, and when that wasn’t possible, I did my best to patiently respond to the queries I could never have foreseen.

As the evening wore on my friend seemed a bit more at ease with the game (fortunately the infield fly rule was never invoked), and with his growing understanding, his interest peaked. With each passing at-bat he sought to know more and more, proving, as Socrates taught that it is almost impossible to educate someone with an answer until he or she is invested in asking a question.

 

At some point during the evening, it hit me. Education in general, and adult Jewish education, in particular, is not dissimilar from teaching baseball to a grown up. In the beginning, everything is alien and remote, and since adults are not used to feeling that way, responses range from frustration to ennui. After all, who can blame someone for having no interest in baseball when they can’t tell the difference between a balk and a batboy?

The same, it seems to me, can be said about all things Jewish, particularly in the synagogue realm, where, to the uninitiated, the “rules of the game” are just as daunting and foreign as baseball was to my friend in Pittsfield, Mass. For the untutored, a non-native language, coupled with alien rituals, strange “uniforms,” rules that appear to lack any rationale, and a much less friendly crowd in the seats than can be found at most hometown baseball games, all combine to make the synagogue experience uninviting at best. And it only gets worse. Imagine how truly weird it must be to go to a Jewish wedding or to pay a shiva call, to attend a baby naming or brit milah, to search for hametz or welcome imaginary guests to a sukkah, when those practices are as strange as a pick off move to first or a squeeze play at home to the baseball novitiate.

Early in my experience as baseball-tutor-for-a-night, it became clear to me that to be successful I needed to put myself squarely in the mindset of my charge. I had to anticipate his questions based on what was happening at the moment and to respond without judgment to his interrogatories. Given the imbalance between us – I knew the game, he did not – I sought to avoid even the appearance of condescension and censoriousness. Imagine the outcome when an already vulnerable learner is made to feel embarrassed, however subtly, because of what she does not know.

Here again, my decades as an adult educator came to mind. How many times do those in organized Jewish life make newcomers feel unwelcome, not because we are brazenly unfriendly, but because our tone and tenor convey disdain and superiority to those unfamiliar with the rules? How many times and in how many ways do we blame or condemn the seeker for not understanding what we take for granted? How many times do we fail to recognize that what is often expressed as boredom or disaffection may really be a reflection of non-understanding? And then, how many times do we ignore the basics of good pedagogy by thinking we can make Judaism relevant by a one-size-fits-all sermon, by tinkering with the dues structure of our institutions, or by the amorphous admonition to go and study? Painful as it may be to admit, Judaism is no more meaningful or compelling to those unfamiliar with its ways than baseball was to my Israeli friend. (I will refrain from noting that Judaism is often equally as irrelevant to the lives of Israelis as is baseball – but that’s another story.)

To suggest that Jews and those who love them should find relevance in Judaism on the basis of genetics alone is to insist that residents of the U.S. should love baseball simply because it has been dubbed the national pastime. If I don’t “get” the rules, if I have never been exposed to the stratagems, nuances, and, indeed, the beauty of the game, then in what universe is it reasonable to insist I should treasure the inheritance I never asked for nor never wanted?

To be clear, there is only a slim chance that my Israeli friend will ever find himself back in a baseball stadium. A few hours at the park, and an initial exposure to the game’s memes are insufficient to develop a deep love. And, in point of fact, even if he were steeped in the game, he might not find it intriguing, compelling, or personally relevant. The same must be said about the Jewish experience as well. Basic understanding is necessary but not sufficient to developing a lifelong attachment. But unless we are prepared to invest in the acquisition of that basic understanding – through highly personalized coaching and learning – unless our approaches begin with a recognition that adults learn when they are sufficiently inspired to ask questions, and unless we make Judaism intelligible and accessible for our adult learners, unless we do all this, well … simply put, we will never even get to first base.

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Read my fomer blog The Leading Edge Previously published on JUF.org

Hal Lewis