Carpe Diem: Let’s Get the Movement Together

By Edward Frim

It happened for Hillel on Campus. It coalesced for Jewish Day Schools. Birthright Israel has done it. It came together for Jewish Camping. Each of these movements has succeeded in attracting and convening partisans and funders, creating excitement, attracting resources and making a huge difference in Jewish life in North America. Perhaps the biggest endeavor in Jewish life in North America has yet to flower in this way. It has great potential to transform Jewish life, and it is poised and ready.

The majority of our children continue to receive Jewish education in synagogue and part-time settings and their families continue to be engaged in synagogue or Jewish community life. We have yet to seize on this huge opportunity for our community.

Many of our leaders continue to cling to an outdated narrative about this endeavor. That narrative of stale and unengaging settings, outdated methods, and alienated students is simply not true.

There are exciting things happening across the country. We are seeing a wave of innovation and change. New and exciting programs and experiments have been proliferating, including collaborations like the Jewish Journeys Project in New York, independent new models like Kesher in Boston and Edah in Berkeley, new resources and program online like Shalom Learning, and many other experiential and project based learning models in synagogues and other settings that meet the needs of families and inspire children and parents. These efforts are not only engaging families and students they are beginning to shape the future of Jewish life in North America.

The time is overdue for us to come together to celebrate this emerging movement, build the excitement and attract the resources that will be required for it to realize its full potential.

Many have cited the argument that outside the Orthodox community the majority of our families will never participate in Jewish day school education, so we are obliged to invest in part-time settings. But there is a far more exciting argument for focusing on part-time Jewish education. Almost all such programs are nested in settings that embody Jewish life, whether at a synagogue, JCC, Chabad or independent community of families. They offer the opportunity to create an integrated and immersive set of experiences for children and families, experiences that include real and vital Jewish life. Offering children and families a positive vision and positive experiences of Jewish life is what will engage them now and build our community and our Jewish future. Our Jewish day schools also have much to learn about engaging our families and inspiring our students, and a great deal of groundbreaking work is taking place in synagogue and part-time settings that can be applied in day schools.

Networks of professionals and lay leaders doing this work do exist, but we do not have opportunities to come together to learn from each other and build a national agenda. The Covenant Foundation has generously supported the Shinui project, a network of central agencies in six communities working to ignite change and bring innovation to part-time Jewish education in my community of Pittsburgh, and in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Cleveland and Houston. Covenant has also supported the Nizan Network of innovative new programs across the country. The URJ’s B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s ReFrame and the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE) are bringing new ideas to our synagogues and working with them to implement change. The Institute for Southern Jewish Life is working with almost 70 congregational schools, and Chabad Hebrew Schools have created a network of schools across the country. On the local level, efforts like The Jewish Education Project’s Coalition of Innovating Congregations in New York, Boston’s Jewish Learning Connections and others are supporting innovation in more than one hundred synagogues.

It is time for us to convene, to share what we have learned, spark excitement, build a national agenda and seize this opportunity to reinvigorate Jewish education and Jewish life.

Edward Frim is Executive Director at Agency for Jewish Learning, Pittsburgh, a member of the Shinui Network.

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  1. Gabe Goldman says

    The congregation school movement was maligned by the 1990 National Jewish Population Study (the same Study that was so flawed that many of its findings were rejected as invalid). It was the beginning of the loss of faith in part time Jewish schooling and the beginning of abandoning congregation schools. FOR TWO DECADES, the powers that be determined that congregation schools were flawed and couldn’t be corrected. Suddenly, our educational salvation was thrust onto the Jewish camp movement. Then there was a 10 year, failing effort, to increase day school education. Throughout this 20 year period, congregation schools lost members and saw their community support diminish. No longer was there funding to recruit, train or retain teachers — and so congregation education began to collapse back to where it was in the early 1970s with individual congregations fending for themselves.

    The fact is that there has never been a study on the effectiveness of congregation schools. To this day, the majority of Jewish professional and lay leaders did not attend day school. if they had any Jewish education, it was through their “religious school,” Obviously, congregation schools are doing something right that should continue.

    Once again, I want to point out that proliferation of programming does not equal success. This is what got congregation schools in trouble to begin with. Getting people to the programs is the means to the goal — but what exactly is the goal. What is the goal of Jewish camps? And, after 15 years of Birthright, exactly what difference has it made? It is far safer for us to proclaim success based on perception than based on actually data.

  2. says

    Ed, thank you for raising up the new and more accurate narrative. A reporter called me this week from a major Jewish paper and asked me to “comment on the kids who get kicked out of Hebrew School.” My response: This is an old narrative.

    Today more and more congregations work closely with children and parents to understand their needs. Children are engaged by working in soup kitchens, praying and celebrating with families, and solving real life problems with Jewish wisdom and mentorship. The congregations that are working in this way are not reporting “bad behavior” as the issue, but are reporting “behavior of a lived Judaism.” (This is the story I hear from The Coalition of Innovating Congregations and others)

    Surely, there are still stories when it doesn’t work, but that “kicked out” narrative” is no longer the prevailing story. The reporter said “yes that seems to be what I’m hearing as I’m conducting my interviews. It is a generational thing.”

  3. says

    Let’s also herald the ongoing, amazing innovation that is happening at the local level without the benefit of big name programs. This creative work by dedicated Jewish educators goes on every day as they meet the needs of their independent synagogue communities. They can’t wait for big studies on effectiveness–their students are in the building now. One additional flexible, highly innovative tool that’s designed specifically for Jewish education, is available free, is private and safe for kids, and can be implemented in small steps without a big program or major study is the Online Learning Center from Behrman House.

  4. Iris Koller says

    I would like to echo Vicki’s comment above. It is critical that we bring together those communities who do not have the benefit of a central agency or community educator. We need to talk together about what works and use technology to convene ongoing Communities of Practice to affect deep change. As colleagues we need to support each other through the process of growth so that we are prepared to meet 21st century opportunities and challenges.

    The vibrant Facebook group JEDLAB – over 3600 strong – is beginning to build an important and fluid network. Online connections are leading to joint study via Google Hangouts and in person meet-ups. While this group represents the spectrum of Jewish education settings and its members include part and full time teachers, professional and lay educational leaders, parents, and students, many are from part-time settings who come to JEDLAB with big questions as well as thoughtful answers for others.

    It would be wonderful if Shinui and Nizan leaders would share what they are exploring and learning on JEDLAB. Together, we can continue to grow the impact of part-time Jewish education on the lives of our learners, their families, our teachers, and our communities.

  5. Dave Neil says

    Good article. This article provides a bunch of links to many innovating programs happening at the Hebrew School level, but one program wasn’t mentioned and one link was left out.
    The program is called Jewish Kids Groups and the link is here
    For people interested in improving Hebrew Schools It is worth checking out.