James Hyman is CEO of the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and is an ordained rabbi. A Toronto native, he earned his doctorate in religion from Stanford University. He lives with his wife and two children in Potomac.
Your group helps provide adult Jewish education. Why do you think it's so important for not just kids, but also Jewish adults to learn about their traditions?
Education is really one of the central values in our Jewish tradition. We believe that education is not only for children but really is something that should be engaged in throughout one's life. It's not an end; it's a means. The commitment to learning about yourself and who you are as an American Jew in the 21st century is an essential part of being an adult. In addition to that, we know that no matter what we teach our children, unless their parents are also doing these things in the home, it won't stick. The value of education is one that has to be borne by children and parents in order for it to be really meaningful and have a long-term impact.
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Jewish communities in the Washington area are seeing more and more interfaith couples. What are the challenges of passing on Judaism to the children of those couples?
I think there are a number of challenges. It's a really important reality in the Jewish community today, not only here, but across the country. I think being open and welcoming is probably one of the most important things we can do. That first encounter that interfaith families have with a rabbi or an educator can often be the most critical moment in their relationship with the Jewish community. So being welcoming is a huge issue. And another is to respect that there are a lot of ways interfaith couples celebrate the two religions in their home. The Jewish community has to be very sensitive to the different ways that people do celebrate their identities and nurture them in an interfaith environment.
Your group seeks out "new approaches to time-honored traditions." What are those new approaches?
Certainly, the Internet and social media are critical new tools. People are learning from the Internet in ways that are very different from the way they learned even 25 years ago. So I think getting really exciting programming on the Internet is an important part of this, and also responding to the different ways young people identify themselves as Jews. A lot of people under 40 years old don't really want to buy memberships in Jewish institutions. So we have to have much more flexibility in the way people can engage in exploring their identity, beyond simple membership. We have to think: "How do we get Jewish identity in their homes? How do we offer events in bookstores and parks? How do we offer things in Jewish institutions that do not require the financial commitment they used to require?"
At your core, what is one of your defining beliefs?
One of my defining beliefs is that in order to understand who I am as a person, I have to understand where I came from and what are the values that made my tradition what it is. I think that's probably the most important credo I have.