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"Doing -- and then Hearing" in the Washington Jewish Week



By Rachel Meytin · June 22, 2011

Often, as a Jewish educator, I think about two of my favorite words from the Torah: na'aseh ve-nishmah, the response of the Israelites when presented with the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:7).

I think about what this statement means to my work and how we educate young people. At first glance it's backwards: Na'aseh is "we will do," and nishmah means "we will hear." It is difficult to think about first "doing" without "hearing," but it is something that solid experiential and immersive education asks of our students all the time.

The nearly 10,000 teens who have just returned from the March of the Living (MOTL) experienced na'aseh ve-nishmah. MOTL brings teenagers from around the world for a week in Poland followed by another in Israel. Throughout the program the teens are challenged, excited, horrified, and engaged in a larger discussion about what this is all about. Although there is a pretrip curriculum, there's no way that the teens can actually "hear" what they're going to "do" before they get there. All of their preparatory work doesn't give them a real insight into what they're going to experience. So we ask the teens to na'aseh ve-nishmah - to do and then to hear, to see and then to understand.

But what should - or could - happen after understanding? Medieval commentator Ibn Ezra extended the idea of this text into further action. What if "we will do" means that we'll do those commandments that we understand or have been given thus far, and "we will learn" allows for growth, for new commandments, for next steps? When we educators and Jewish professionals bring students along a journey, particularly an experiential or immersive one, we expect that they will grow. But what if we also expected that they take action; that they assume responsibility?

This year, the teens who came back from the march are being given an opportunity to take on a new responsibility. Next week (June 26-28 in Washington, D.C.), teens from across North America, MOTL alumni and other teen leaders will come together at the Human Rights and Genocide Teen Issue Summit, lead by the Panim Institute of B'nai B'rith Youth Organization. They will delve into a difficult but important conversation: What is genocide? And what stops one? What individual responsibilities does each of us have toward our larger society when we see the first tell-tale signs of infringements on human rights? Now that we have seen what can happen, what is our new responsibility? To help answer these questions, the teens will engage in advocacy and participatory leadership, they'll debate, they'll learn, they'll go up on Capitol Hill and present their commitments to their elected representatives. They'll be guided by experts from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Committee on Conscience, Jewish World Watch, the Genocide Intervention Network and its youth organizing group, STAND, and Facing History and Ourselves. They will create their own action plans for taking responsibility for responding to, and standing up against, genocide and other challenges to human rights.

I remember having a hard time when I first studied na'aseh ve-nishmah. Wasn't this contrary to my understanding of Judaism as a religion where we talk first, then act? Wasn't this an example of requiring blind faith? Many years later, I've come to a different place with this text; it now speaks to my personal, and professional, approach to Judaism. As educators, we often expect our students to take a leap of faith with us, particularly when we bring our students to challenging experiences and material. We apply "we will do and we will hear" through experiential and immersive learning experiences for our students.

So does experiential learning, na'aseh ve-nishmah, expect blind faith? I think it requires a leap of faith on the part of the student, and on the part of the educators and the leaders of the community. We hold tight to our faith in our students' ability to assume personal responsibility to and for the community. We give them the tools, the experiences, the values and the guidance, and then we watch as they demonstrate amazing leadership and commitment.

Rachel Meytin is the director of the Panim Institute of B'nai B'rith Youth Organization in Washington, D.C.

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