By Nancy Parkes
I have read the reports and the responses. I have attended meetings and have discussed the findings of the Pew report with many of my colleagues and with experts in the field, all whom I would define as people who care deeply about the future of Jewish life in America.
And, like many others, I am concerned about the Jewish future. But not in the way you may think.
It is clear from the findings of the Pew Report that we still have work to do in making Jewish learning and life meaningful, engaging, and relevant for American Jews. I don’t believe that anyone would deny that. My issue with the articles and proposal presented by Steven Cohen and Jack Wertheimer is that there is absolutely no mention of the value and importance of supplementary synagogue education.
It is interesting that despite the Pew Report demonstrating that supplementary education in the high school years is indeed effective, the proposal makes no mention of supporting these programs. It does, however, mention day schools, Jewish camps, youth groups and trips to Israel.
I don’t know of one Jewish educator, lay leader, or Rabbi that would dispute that day schools and informal educational experiences are powerful influences in the lives of our young people. I certainly believe that they are. One of the reasons why these experiences are so effective is that they do not occur in isolation. As noted by Cohen and Wertheimer, “These programs work synergistically with each other and also with formal schooling during the critical high-school years.”
As a Jewish educator and director in a supplementary synagogue school, I would never claim that supplementary education alone guarantees or leads to Jewish engagement as adults. Why then is this the way so many evaluate our programs?
Educators and directors in the synagogue setting have done much soul searching during the past decade. We were told that our system was “broken”; that children and parents were not finding the joy in Jewish learning in our settings; and even more importantly, we were told that the learning that was taking place was not leading to Jewish living.
We took all of this to heart- because we were concerned and because we care deeply about the future of Judaism.
How did many of us respond? We made changes – significant changes – in the structure and design of our schools. We advocated for Jewish camp and even brought the camp experience into our schools. We made youth groups an integral part of our educational programming blending the formal setting with this valuable informal Jewish experience. Many programs now take teens on trips to Israel, and more and more programs take learning out of the traditional classroom setting. Perhaps one of the most significant changes that has been made is the education and involvement of parents. We involve them because we know that if Judaism is not relevant and meaningful for them, they as the decision makers, will not only remove themselves from Jewish life, but their children, as well.
With more than 60% of our families enrolling their children in supplementary educational programs, we know that much is at stake in the kind of educational experiences we create for our learners. So, what kind of message are they receiving by the silence – and worse, the negativity – leaders in research and education send them by not supporting their decision with funding? That they are not worth the investment? That they have made the “wrong” decision? That they care less about their child’s Jewish education?
I keep a running list of the negative comments I hear from lay leaders, clergy, and professionals in the Jewish world about supplementary education. Unfortunately, the list is long and continues to grow. Is it any wonder that less and less young people are going into the field of Jewish education, and why synagogue schools have difficultly finding educators and leaders for their schools? This kind of rhetoric perpetuates a self-filling cycle.
Supplementary schools matter – and they do make a positive difference in the lives of our families. Can they be better? Absolutely. But, they need support to do so.
Here is my proposal:
- Stop the negative narrative. Leaders and clergy need to become vocal advocates for supplementary education, whether it is from the pulpit, in writing, or at conferences.
- Be our partners. We need more leaders and clergy to truly be our partners in creating the educational excellence that we all want. If your synagogue school is not a place that you would send your own child, how can you work with your educational team to make it so?
- Encourage people to consider Jewish education as a career. We need more Jewish educators – in all settings. We need to do a better job at reaching out to those who we believe could make a difference in the Jewish world of informal and formal Jewish education. We also need more scholarships dollars to help those who wish to become Jewish educators to realistically be able do so.
- Provide mentorship and consulting for supplementary education directors. Change is hard, and it’s even harder when you are doing it on your own.
- Collaboration. Jewish camps and youth groups “work.” So does supplementary education when it is combined with these informal experiences. More conferences should be held which bring leaders in these fields together to think about how they can truly collaborate to bring powerful experiential education to the supplementary school setting, while also encouraging our children and teens to attend camp and become active members in youth groups.
I am not an alarmist, but I do believe that supplementary schools matter and that the lack of support that they receive and the negative narrative that is perpetuated is indeed, in the words of Cohen and Wertheimer, “a condition that is dire enough to warrant the serious attention of anyone concerned about the Jewish future.”
Nancy Parkes is the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, an egalitarian synagogue in White Plains, NY.