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Many of our leaders continue to cling to an outdated narrative about this endeavor. That narrative of stale and unengaging settings, outdated methods, and alienated students is simply not true.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