Finding new purpose in Jewish education
Growing up in a government housing project in the London borough of Hackney, Darren Kleinberg didn’t know a lot about Judaism. His parents identified as Jews but weren’t observant; they didn’t belong to a synagogue or celebrate Jewish holidays, though they sent him to a free Jewish day school because they thought it’d be safer. “The only thing I really knew about being Jewish was that people wanted to hurt you for it,” he says. “I thought, if it’s so important that people want to beat me up for it, maybe I should find out what it’s all about.”
He became increasingly curious throughout high school and set off to Israel for a gap year that stretched into four, deferring his college acceptance and attending classes at an Israeli seminary. He later became one of the first rabbis ordained at a groundbreaking Modern Orthodox rabbinical school in New York, then founded an adult Jewish learning and leadership program in Phoenix. He also went on to get a PhD in religious studies, despite never going back for his undergraduate degree.
Now the head of Kehillah High School, a progressive Jewish high school in Palo Alto, Kleinberg has joined Stanford GSE as the school’s first visiting scholar in education and Jewish studies. “We’re at a moment now, three generations after the Holocaust, where the purpose of Jewish education is changing,” he says. “For the last 70 years, the focus has been on survival and rebuilding.” As the event shifts from memory to history, he says, newer generations of Jews find their identity shaped less by the trauma of that event, and the function of Jewish education needs to evolve. “It has to be in service of the full potential of a human being. And Judaism has some very powerful and compelling things to say about it, this project of being human.”