When Rabbi Gil Steinlauf was an undergraduate at Princeton University, he was struck by the University’s unofficial motto “In the Nation’s Service”, and was even more struck by the recent addition to the motto, “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity”. As a college student with a strong sense of his Jewish identity, Steinlauf saw the parallels between this motto and Judaism, and began to think about how to combine this sense of responsibility to leadership with his appreciation of his Jewish heritage. For him, this ultimately led to the rabbinate. Over the years, however, Rabbi Steinlauf has deepened his appreciation for the ways that Judaism and the Jewish cultural tradition is a roadmap to leadership of all kinds in life and in the world. Moreover, he came to see how elements of his unique lifepath and story, as seen through the lens of Judaism, led him to become a better leader. This sense of Judaism as inspiring leadership, and shaping leaders of all kinds in the world–combined with a sense of our own unique stories in life– has led Steinlauf to found multiple Jewish leadership programs in his career.
The time has come for a Jewish leadership program designed for teens, to lift them to being in service not only to our people, but to our wider society, and to all of humanity.
Rabbi Steinlauf founded JTLI on the idea that Jewish supplemental education in the 21st century must begin from a very different premise than in earlier generations of American Jewry. Namely, in order to reach and inspire new generations of young Jews, Jewish education must not be parochial in its aims and scope. Rather, Jewish education must demonstrate the ways that Judaism inspires us to face outward toward repairing the world, building better and more just and compassionate societies.
Rabbi Steinlauf understands that a key value to reaching and inspiring younger generations of Jews is to appeal to that which is unique about each individual’s identity. Right alongside a sense of where we fall on the spectrum of privilege, gender, sexuality, color, and ability is our ethnic/religious identity. For a young person today to say that “I am Jewish” is an extraordinary act of identity assertion. Despite the fears of many who worry that assimilation is decimating the Jewishness of future generations, Steinlauf has found that Jewish young people today are, in fact, very proud to be Jewish.
JTLI understands this, and begins with the notion that for so many Jewish teens, being Jewish is central, sacred, and part of a calculus of identities that make each individual unique. It begins with the assumption that Jewish kids are sophisticated enough to grasp the idea of Jewish continuity, together with many other competing notions of identity and values in their lives.
What they lack is the direction and guidance to begin to discern a new pathway forward where their Jewishness is a cherished part (but not the whole) of who they are.
JTLI shows them that their Jewishness is nothing short of a revolutionary identity, a part of “who I am” that can bring them to leadership, and give them the strength to transform all humanity, and all identities for the better.
JTLI, then, is a radical new model of supplemental Jewish education, a paradigm shift, one that confidently proclaims that Jewish identity emerges as part of the emerging revolution in human self-awareness in the 21st century.
Instead of educating young people THAT they are Jewish JTLI lifts up WHY they are Jewish, and shows them how Judaism teaches us to be most deeply and fully engaged human beings who make a difference in the world.
Inspired by the open discourse of the rabbinic tradition, JTLI’s model of Jewish education does not assert that Judaism possesses the only “one true way” toward truth, goodness, and sacredness. Rather, Judaism and Jewish tradition live alongside many human wisdom traditions and practices–but Judaism is ours, it’s a powerful and cherished part of “who I am” that adds a critical voice to the multicultural, multifaceted discourse of identity, social justice, and meaning-making in the world.
The JTLI program, centered squarely in exposure to radical Talmudic open-minded inquiry, doubt, and questioning the given, shows teens how their Judaism represents a critical pathway to activating our deepest human potential for the good.
JTLI proudly embraces the very Jewish values of inclusion, diversity, pluralism, and respectful disagreement. It is founded on the deep belief that Judaism has the strength not only to withstand outside ideas and identities, but it has, for thousands of years, absorbed and improved on those ideas and identities, and made all of humanity, and all the world, a better place.
It’s time to teach our kids about JTLI: Jewish Justice Leadership, Jewish Torah/Intellectual Leadership, Jewish Love/Compassionate Leadership, and Jewish Inspiration/Spiritual Leadership. It’s time to teach them how to be leaders in the world, and how their Jewish identity, something that they can cherish, can get them there.