Getting it Together

by Chip Edelsberg, Ph.D.

The Jim Joseph Foundation recently convened a group of evaluators, social scientists, and grantmaking professionals for the purpose of exploring meaningful approaches to assessing Jewish experiences of Jewish teens. What became patently clear during the discussion was that too few of these conversations occur on any regularly scheduled basis, and Jewish philanthropy – at least in so far as funding of Jewish education is concerned – does not foster enough of these interactions.

The world has obviously changed in dramatic ways in the fifteen years during which I have been privileged to work in Jewish philanthropy. One of the single most pronounced of these shifts has been from bureaucracy and organizational hierarchy grounded in analog-based communication to a networked universe powered by digital technology.

Long established educational institutions are under siege. A 2010 Carnegie Foundation paper on “Getting Ideas into Action: Building Network Improvement Communities in Education” asserts that the social organization of the research infrastructure is badly broken … it demands new arrangements.” Harvard professor Clay Christensen argues that “the way schooling is currently arranged – in a monolithic batch mode system where all students are taught the same things in the same way – won’t ever allow us to educate children in informed way. We need a modular system.”

I believe the pervasiveness of doing business in and through networks poses a real challenge to funders of Jewish education. It has been my experience that we struggle to work collaboratively with each other. More seriously, perhaps, I do not know of many cases where practitioner experience and expertise is rigorously incorporated into the design of major grants in support of Jewish education.

Good ideas – great ones, even – are still cloistered by foundations, “owned” by them in ways that make partnership difficult and nearly impossible. Some accuse us of having proprietary self-absorption [in our organizational] genes. While I accept the notion that “good ideas may not want to be free,” ideas also desire – as Steven Johnson argues in his brilliant analysis of Where Good Ideas Come From – “to connect, fuse, recombine … They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete (pg. 22).”

I can think of numerous grants that the Jim Joseph Foundation and other significant funders have made for a major initiative where these key funders, the grantee, and various individuals whose expertise would likely add important perspective to the initiative never consulted with one another. Lacking such an effort, I suspect we short-change situating initiatives like this in the full complexity of real world context. What I am concerned occurs as a consequence is that the initiative is never conceptualized quite as clearly as it should have been. Therefore the grant that gets implemented is not as efficacious as otherwise it might have been. And because the Jewish education grant making culture does not keep funders, grantees, and evaluators at the table together throughout the entire grant process, knowledge is neither acquired nor disseminated anywhere nearly as efficiently as it is meant to be.

This last point is crucial, if you believe as many people do that in contemporary society, knowledge itself is less about collecting information than it is about participating in networks of smart people who care about what you do.

There is much about collaborating effectively that I continue to learn. There is even more about working in an increasingly networked world that I am only beginning to grasp. Fortunately, I have been taught that the best grant making is not done solo. As the Monitor Group’s insightful Katherine Fulton notes, the two most essential components of high performing philanthropy are “humility and companions.”

I urge stakeholders in Jewish education – funders, organizations, institutions, and start-ups, academics; bloggers, and pundits; traditionalists and innovators alike to create new spaces and more inviting places for us to directly and strategically interact with one another.

Chip Edelsberg, Ph.D., is Executive Director of Jim Joseph Foundation.

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  1. Adam Gaynor says

    After 15 years as a practitioner of Jewish education, I could not agree more with Chip’s assessment of the fractured landscape of Jewish educational initiatives, and particularly his reflection that he does “not know of many cases where practitioner experience and expertise is rigorously incorporated into the design of major grants in support of Jewish education.”

    I would add that practitioners of Jewish education, particularly for teens, who collectively reach only 22% of the total Jewish teen population, would do well to expand their collaborative horizons as well. When 78% of Jewish teens are not participating in any ongoing Jewish educational program, then a market has to be created before it can be served. This requires the active solicitation of input from a wider, untapped array of people, including public and private school teachers, teachers in secular afterschool programs, a wide cross-section of students and parents, and the host of other people who interact with teens every day.

    The bottom line: Jewish education is insular, parochial, and trapped in decades-old paradigms that eschew the very complexity that collaboration requires. Students’ own identities are multi-faceted combinations of gender, race, class, religion, sexuality, interests, and experiences; Jewish doesn’t always float to the top of the priority list. Our educational initiatives have to match the complex, intersecting, and collaborative identities and networks of our students, or they will continue to be passé.

  2. Tamar Wisemon says

    Chip concludes, ” This requires the active solicitation of input from a wider, untapped array of people, including public and private school teachers, teachers in secular afterschool programs, a wide cross-section of students and parents, and the host of other people who interact with teens every day.”

    We agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, which is why our Eco Campus virtual school platform is the largest global environmental school network in the Jewish world, connecting teens, tweens and teachers today in day schools and supplementary schools, across our different denominations and between eleven cities in three countries.

    We look forward to expanding the network,

    Tamar Wisemon
    Director of Media and Technology
    Sviva Israel- Eco Campus

  3. says

    Thanks, Chip, for this call to action. I agree completely, and would like to add two more stakeholder-engagement items to your list. First, while you include parents, I’d like to expand on that to say that we need to be asking parents what they want for their Jewish families and Jewish children. This is not about “engaging parents” to make our programs more successful, because we can’t do it without their partnership, but rather understand (and facilitating their own understanding) of what they want for their families, and designing with that in mind. Clay’s quote about the failure of “one size fits all” has never been more true.

    Second, I’d like to explicitly add (I think you’ve implicitly done so with your quotes) is that we need to be expanding our networks outside of the Jewish community. “Stakeholders in Jewish education” obviously have the greatest interest in the questions we are discussing, but others may have valuable inputs and experience to share as well. The Dalai Lama asked Jews about our success in the diaspora for good reason. We may benefit from expanding our gaze as well.

  4. Larry H Bernstein says

    I particularly like Adam Gaynor’s comment. If nothing else, he got to the meat in a shorty.

    The issue is much bigger than jewish because we have a national problem with income inequalities interacting with a high rate of dysfunctional families. I just read the book “Just One Jew: (grand)son of a Gadol.” He had to go to Israel because of the total claustrophobia in the Hassidic community. The Gadol was the founder of jewish high schools.

    I went to our new Jewish High School in CT and offered to help with teaching science or tutoring at no cost. My sister in California does substitute teaching of science, my older sister in Minneapolis teaches piano at 72, and my younger daughter has been teaching english. I taught premed students in Brooklyn from Midwood high in honors biology, and very religious premed students from Touro over a 5 year stint in Brooklyn before retiring. Iloved the rabbi at New YorkMethodist Hospital and participated in a minyan daily. The students all published and presented papers, whether in HS or college, and they learned and got scholarships and recommendations well earned. My own request to volunteer was ignored even though I could contribute, own 4 computers I used only for teaching, had tons of data for teaching graphical visualization, have presented in Mexico, Sweden, and Strasbourg, Fr, serve on an Editorial Board,have 3 patens and over 100 peer reviewed papers and 6 book chapters. How can I give back when it’s not wanted. We have a lot of innovation going on, and these are the people creating the future. I can only hope that we do some repair at the education level – in the family by age 2 and up, and right on through.