The ‘Next Big Thing’ in Jewish Education
Jonathan Woocher is Chief Ideas Officer at JESNA and directs its Lippman Kanfer Institute, an action-oriented think tank for innovation in Jewish learning and engagement. Jon served on the original Wexner Foundation Advisory Committee and on its Institutional Grants and Graduate Fellowship committees. Jon can be reached at: email@example.com.
Several months ago JESNA published a “best of the decade” list of notable achievements and developments in Jewish education (http://www.jesna.org/component/k2/item/626). It was an impressive list, including game-changing initiatives like Birthright Israel and PJ Library as well as success stories like the revitalization of Jewish camps, the spread of service learning, and funder partnerships to drive change in specific educational domains.
In fact, Jewish education today has much to celebrate. The last several decades have seen a wide range of positive developments, including the growth of high quality adult Jewish learning (spearheaded in part by the Wexner Heritage Program) and the emergence of a new generation of talented professionals (to which the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program have contributed greatly).
And yet…, there is reason for disquiet as well. The rise in day school enrollments has stalled outside the Orthodox community. Participation in supplementary education is declining. A majority of teenagers still leave the educational system soon after Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Young adults continue to complain that the Jewish education they received was boring and carried little meaning for them. Birthright Israel remains largely disconnected from what comes before and after, and the enduring attachment of young Jews to Israel and Jewish peoplehood is in doubt. Parents struggle to deal with the cost of education.
Jewish education is not failing. But, neither is it the consistently attractive, accessible, and affordable experience that it should be. In an era of choice and diversity, students, families, and the Jewish community are all asking more of Jewish education, and too often they’re not getting it.
So, what comes next? How do we build on the positive achievements of recent years to make it not just possible, but nearly certain that every Jewish young person and adult will have rich, meaningful, and impactful Jewish educational experiences to draw upon as they chart their Jewish journeys?
The answer I would suggest lies not in new programs (though we’ll continue to need these), but in something more ambitious and more challenging – a rethinking of what it takes to create a truly excellent Jewish educational system for the 21st century. The key word is “system.” We don’t really have one in Jewish education today. Instead, we have an agglomeration of autonomous institutions and largely siloed domains (like day school or Jewish camp) that don’t work together to deliver the array of diverse, but inter-connected educational experiences that contemporary conditions call for. The result is that Jewish education’s consumers have to do too much of the work themselves to find, access, move among, and pay for the most appropriate educational opportunities for their children and themselves. Potential synergies are lost, and individual institutions struggle largely on their own to deliver the quality of programs that learners today expect and demand.
Consider a few examples of how working as a genuine system could change the current reality for both learners and institutions:
• Instead of being an interlude from “real life,” Jewish camp would be a springboard and resource for year-round learning and activity – not just for campers, but for staff as well, whose skills in informal education could enrich many a school setting.
• Instead of struggling to make ends meet and pricing middle-class families out of the market, day schools could economize on back-room operations and collaborate, often via technology, to offer a greater variety of educational options to students. Day schools might even reconstitute themselves as “community education centers” providing educational services (such as Hebrew language instruction) to synagogues and the community at large.
• Instead of offering largely similar programs as they do today and fighting families’ busy schedules, synagogues could be part of a network offering a range of “supplementary” programs with specialized foci like the arts, social action, Shabbat, or modern Hebrew, available at times and places and using modalities that allow families choice and flexibility.
• Instead of having few places to disseminate their innovative “products,” creative educational entrepreneurs would be linked up with institutions seeking new ideas and materials in mutually beneficial partnerships – with learners as the ultimate beneficiaries.
These are not idle pipe dreams. Initiatives to implement more “systemic” approaches to delivering Jewish education are underway today. However, fully realizing their potential will require that we abandon heretofore limiting assumptions about institutional self-sufficiency and that we incentivize risk-taking to try new forms of educational organization. This is clearly an “adaptive challenge” in Heifetz’ and Linsky’s terms, and it will require skilled leadership to negotiate the many unknowns we will face in seeking to “do Jewish education” differently. But, we have the ability to create an educational system that is much more agile, responsive, and effective than today’s by taking advantage of the power of networks to catalyze new modes of collaboration and by tapping into the entrepreneurial energies that are beginning to reshape the Jewish community.
What will drive this change? People ready to join forces across traditional boundaries to push our current institutions to think and act more boldly and expansively – professionals and volunteer leaders, here and in Israel, and especially the myriad consumers of Jewish education whose voice is far too little heard. Come to think of it, it sounds to me like a perfect task for the Wexner community. Anyone interested?