Start-up entrepreneurial leaders, while bringing needed creativity to Jewish education, are working assiduously every day to keep the doors of their organizations open and as a result struggle to focus sufficiently on long-term sustainability. National organizational leadership, while having acquired the knowledge that comes from seeing their sector at 10,000 feet, struggle to maintain deep relationships with on the ground education.
by Bill Robinson, PhD
Two weeks ago, I joined the directors of communal agencies of Jewish education at their annual gathering. It brought me back to me first years in Jewish education and engaged me in thinking about the future. First the past … 19 years ago I began working as the staff researcher for Mort Mandel’s Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education. It was the first private philanthropically-funded, national change initiative, and it would herald a sea change in the landscape in Jewish education.
Twenty years ago, the Jewish education landscape was populated by day schools, synagogues, youth groups, camps, communal agencies and national denominational bodies. Today, all of these still exist. In addition, the landscape is filled with sector-based, national organizations such as the Foundation for Jewish Camp, the Partnership for Jewish Education, and birthright, as well as smaller entrepreneurial incubators such as Bikkurim, Joshua Venture, Jumpstart and Upstart. It also includes numerous, educational start-ups, such as Hazon, Storahtelling. G-dCast, Avoda Arts, Teva, Food for Thought, JChoice, and Moving Traditions, among many, many others. All of this would not have been possible or even conceivable without the emergence of private Jewish philanthropy, sometimes working in concert with the larger federations.
As a result of this dramatically changed environment, as well as decreasing campaigns among most federations over the last two decades, the future of communal agencies for Jewish education has seemed very much in doubt. Many have lost substantial amounts of funding; some have been absorbed within federations; others have just closed up.
When the communal agency system was created by Samson Benderly and his disciples at the beginning of the 20th century, it seemed a very different and more positive time. They were arguably the leading force for innovation in Jewish education – creating the Talmud Torah system, bringing women into the field as professionals, helping to build the camp movement, and creating almost from scratch Jewish education as we know it today. In the post-war era, with the shift to suburbia and the rise of synagogue schools, communal agencies shifted their focus toward a service model, focusing on curriculum development and teacher education.
Over the last two decades, not only has the organizational landscape radically changed, the world in which we live in is fundamentally evolving. We are witnessing:
- A generational shift toward DIY and life-relevant Judaism.
- Access to anything you want to learn about Judaism through a few taps of the touch screen.
- A shift back to the city, which is arguably the most under-rated influence on Jewish education.
Taken together these changes have posed a grave challenge to communal agencies, but they also provide a unique opportunity to once again lead.
Start-up entrepreneurial leaders, while bringing needed creativity to Jewish education, are working assiduously every day to keep the doors of their organizations open and as a result struggle to focus sufficiently on long-term sustainability. National organizational leadership, while having acquired the knowledge that comes from seeing their sector at 10,000 feet, struggle to maintain deep relationships with on the ground education. Neither is well-positioned to see the whole system from a holistic perspective – from beginning families to young adults and from the secular to the ultra-orthodox.
This is where the communal agencies can have a unique role – bringing innovation from the periphery into the mainstream, connecting educational leadership across divides, and bringing together wisdom and experience from the sectors, entrepreneurial creativity, and on-the-ground experience.
Almost 6 years ago, I left the exciting foundation world to join Bob Sherman in taking on the challenge of re-designing the communal agency for the greater New York area into a new model. With Deb Friedman, David Bryfman, the rest of our stellar staff, our dynamic board, and working closely with the incredible leadership of UJA-Federation, I believe we are succeeding. Together, we believe that Benderly’s time is actually not so different than ours: times of rapid change with huge challenges and new opportunities.
During my time with the directors of communal agencies, I was seeing the emergence of a new network of communal agencies that has the potential to once again play a vital role in our future. The communal agencies are moving from service back to leadership through:
- Focusing on achieving audacious goals that can realistically be achieved with the resources available (and not spreading themselves thin seeking to serve every need).
- Achieving impactful change through data-based and theoretically-informed decision making (and not just clinging to the “tried and true”).
- Working in partnership with national and entrepreneurial organizations (and not trying to do it all on one’s own).
Sitting at the gathering of directors of communal agencies last week I was reminded of the challenges we are facing. I was also inspired to envision an exciting future – a true network of communal agencies, learning from one another, sharing staff and resources, providing insightful knowledge (based on their on-the-ground experience) to the field, and leading all of us toward an even more exciting Jewish future.
Bill Robinson, PhD, is Chief Strategy Officer of The Jewish Education Project.