The Community Foundation for Jewish Education of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (CFJE) is tasked with, among other things, improving support for some 50 congregational education programs in the Chicagoland area. I have long been concerned that congregational education is not engaging kids with meaningful curricula and compelling teachers. I know there is great work being done across the Wexner network on improving what we all formerly referred to as “after-school Hebrew school” and that most of us in the trenches consider this an urgent challenge. I would be grateful to learn from others who are trying something similar to what we are piloting in Chicago, and also happy to share our learning curve as it unfolds. In that spirit, I share what we are developing.
As a longtime fan of Teach for America (TFA), I knew that the right teacher could make a real difference in the educational experience of the student, and that there was something promising specifically in the engagement of young, bright, mission-driven teachers (such as those chosen by TFA) to break through and reach the kids in the classroom. At the same time, I’d also observed that the young adult role models so compelling to Jewish kids, such as their camp counselors and youth group advisors, did not go on to teach in congregational schools after college. I wanted to attract and train more of these millennial role models to work, as they were willing to do pre-college, in supplementary education, at least for a time (a typical stint in TFA is two years). I thought this would help re-energize the congregational classroom, especially if strong teacher training and curricular support could be brought to augment these college grads’ natural energy and excitement for Jewish life.
As a board member of CFJE, I worked with the executive director, Rabbi Scott Aaron, PhD, to work out this challenge: how do we get the best and brightest of our post-college emerging adults to work in our congregational education settings?
A central component of CFJE’s work is allocating resources for local Jewish education through data-driven decisions. The field of Jewish education is littered with the remains of good ideas that were not properly tested or thought through before being implemented. Therefore, we commissioned a feasibility study to determine what would make teaching in congregational settings attractive to emerging adults of this caliber and whether or not local congregational schools would be interested in hiring teachers from this process. The study found that there would be interest from the target millennials if they were compelled — millennials crave a sense of mission and community. The study also showed that congregational schools would be interested in hiring these teachers if they received proper training and were willing to commit to a full term of teaching. CFJE proceeded to issue a Request For Proposals, seeking ideas for a program to recruit and train millennials to teach in congregational classrooms. The submitted proposals were reviewed by a committee of educators, who recommended one of the proposals with some minor modifications to meet the needs of congregational schools. That contractor is now in the process of developing the program to launch later this year.
The takeaway so far, from our perspective, is three-fold. First, inspiration can come from anyone who cares about a communal need and wants to address it; the trick is to build the partnerships needed to actualize it. Working together as partners, the lay leader and professional can cooperate to maximize opportunities for educational support and improvement, to the benefit of the entire Jewish community. We would not have been able to design and launch this pilot were it nor for the talent and dedication of our Jewish professional, Executive Director Scott Aaron. Second, no matter how good the ideas are, they still need factual context and data-driven decision-making for them to evolve. Third, there has to be a willingness to incur risk for the sake of improvement. Meanwhile, we hope to launch soon with our first cohort of ten Jewish emerging adults.
David T. Brown, a Wexner Heritage alum (Chicago I-99), is Chairman of the Chicago-based law firm, Much Shelist, P.C. David is an active board member of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF) and is immediate past chairman of its board of directors. David also serves on the International BBYO Board of Directors and currently chairs the Global Operations: Israel and Overseas Council for JFNA, where he works with and engages the Federation system on critical overseas issues, particularly in Israel. David can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.