The Real Breakthrough in Jewish Education

by Dr. Gil Graff

Early in the summer, as I walked with two young people (following a Shabbat dinner), one of them asked the other – a 22 year old recent college graduate: “If you could travel anywhere for 10 days, where would you go?” Without hesitation, the young man replied that he would want to go to the nearby residential Jewish summer camp where he had spent so many wonderful summers. When I probed a bit about this response, he spoke ardently about the special nature of the camp and its community of people.

Writing in 1975 about the state of Jewish education in the United States, the late Dr. Walter Ackerman, a capable practitioner and keen observer of American Jewish education, observed that absent an ideal, “efforts at the ‘improvement’ of Jewish education will remain little more than patchwork mechanics which only fall short of any serious mark….” Throughout the twentieth century, much of Jewish education focused on how to make instruction more “school-like.” Better buildings, the latest technology, more classroom hours and the development of new, more attractive course materials seemed the most pressing concerns. But glossy materials, advanced technology and state of the art buildings do not necessarily address the learner’s search for meaning or community.

The 20th century educational thinker Joseph Schwab wrote extensively of four “commonplaces” of education: the learner, the teacher, the subject matter and the milieu. While the subject of study, the teacher and the milieu are, surely, important, the great challenge of education is to meaningfully connect each of these to the experience of the learner. A more learner-centered orientation has, increasingly, come to the fore in Jewish education. Whatever the setting – camp, day school, complementary education program, early childhood center or other context – the question that guides educators is: how will the contemplated experiences relate to the lives of the learners?

This change has expressed itself in a restructuring of complementary Jewish education models from afternoon “schools” to experiential learning centers; many synagogues have dropped the name “school” altogether from the program description. From family Shabbat programs to service learning, from exploration of Jewish texts with an eye to underlying values and their relationship to students’ lives, to personal engagement with Israel, Jewish education is, today, largely about meaning and community. As at camps, students in complementary Jewish education programs have been heard to exclaim: “It’s a great experience because you’re learning while you’re having fun;” or “it gave me a sense of how a bunch of kids can get together and benefit the world.”

The shift from school-like classrooms to learner-focused experiences – in class and beyond – is the real breakthrough in Jewish education. It is a breakthrough that portends well for Jewish learning and living. “And you shall teach your children diligently” is not about a particular setting or instructional program: it is about connecting with the hearts and minds of successive generations.

One point of view … let’s hear yours.

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.

Print Friendly
Pin It
Send to Kindle


  1. says

    kudos to Gil Graff for illuminating important changes in our evolving understanding of Jewish education – the most salient being a shift in center of gravity from transmitter of information to the learner herself. That means that the key questions move from those of “what information must be transmitted?” to “what must the learner learn in order to construct a meaningful and authentic Jewish life?” The diversity of Jewish thought, experience, practice, and belief suggest (demand) a correspondingly diverse approach to education.

    Gil, a historian of American Jewish education, notes a shift from the desire to make Jewish education more “school-like” to a contemporary emphasis on, well, pretty much its converse – camp representing a learning environment as far from the classroom as possible.

    Gil illustrates some keys to camp’s success. The trick for educators is to understand the factors that make camp so effective and to remix those elements into practical educational strategies that can be implemented AFTER Labor Day and BEFORE July 4th.

    Translating these concepts into educational practice is where the rubber meets the road. We are seeing experimental innovations beginning to dot the landscape. These and more must be nurtured and supported (and studied) – even as we know that some will fail. It is the thoughtful and rigorous approach to experimentation itself that must be supported, knowing that not every experiment achieves success. An intentional approach to advancing and nurturing innovation will enable educators to craft and scale the practical steps that take advantage of the conceptual breakthroughs Gil observes.

  2. Jeff Lasday says

    Yasher Koach Gil! This reminds me of a lecture by Barry Chazon many years ago when there were the beginnings of the debates about the different strenghts of formal vs. informal Jewish education. In the end its not about labeling something formal or informal, its all about whether or not its good education.

  3. says

    Thanks to Gil for an important and timely piece. But perhaps you could have gone a bit further out on a limb. When you write about “the shift from school-like classrooms to learner-focused experiences” I think that you are intimating about something far deeper and more profound in terms of the necessary revolution in Jewish education. No longer is good Jewish education about the transmission of knowledge (from the holders of sacred wisdom to our empty vessels aka students) but it is about the transformation of learners. The real revolution has nothing to do with classrooms and everything to do with what we as a community truly value. I don’t teach calculus. i teach students about calculus. No disrespect to Schwab but his four commonplaces should never be treated as equals – the learner should always be first and foremost in our learning experiences.

  4. says

    I am appreciative of the thoughtful comments posted by three outstanding personalities in contemporary Jewish education. Having worked as an educator in camp, school (day and complementary) and youth group settings, I embrace Jeff Lasday’s observation that the labels “formal” and “informal” education are not particularly useful. This is, as David Waksberg observes, very much a period of experimentation in Jewish education; David Waksberg, Jeff Lasday and David Bryfman have each contributed significantly to encouraging and helping to reflect on innovative, learner-centered strategies for creating meaningful Jewish educational experiences for children and families.

    While positioning the learner “front and center,” I remain mindful of Schwab’s (other) educational “commonplaces.” Teachers are, surely, in the service of learners and their learning, but education must take note of educators and their readiness for whatever strategies are contemplated. Most famously, when university professors imagined the “new math” — launched as as a means of leaping forward in response to Sputnik — teacher preparation to understand and share the new approach with learners was insufficiently considered — rendering the “new math” unintelligible to many.

    In addition to the teacher, the subject to be explored brings its own set of considerations. Language education, science, arts and Talmud are disciplines that may call for different approaches, owing to the nature of the particular subject. Though, to be sure, the learner’s needs are, in each case, paramount, educational strategies bear some relationship to the field of inquiry. Finally, the milieu within which learning takes place is part and parcel of the learner’s world; it, too, cannot be ignored by educators.

    A final note….This week, I was privileged to participate in a culminating exercise of a DeLeT cohort (a group of students completing a 13 month teacher education program) at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at the L.A. campus of HUC-JIR. Graduating students — each of whom is proceeding to a teaching position at a Jewish day school — gave every evidence of learner-focused educational wisdom, with due regard for consideration of subject, milieu and teacher in the work in which they are about to engage. I am encouraged that the greatest chapters in American Jewish education are yet to be written.

  5. Michelle Shapiro Abraham says

    I believe part of how we get to where the “rubber meets the road” is by keeping in mind where we want to end up. Whether we use the language of “youth outcomes” or “evidence of understanding,” or “objectives” – it is about figuring out where we want to get to and intentionally designing the program – with our learners – to get there. For example, if what we want is Jews who have the knowledge to celebrate shabbat AND want to celebrate Shabbat with friends and family each week, our program needs to reflect this. If we are teaching Shabbat in a religious school classroom with 2nd graders alone, we are teaching the material, but not engaging the soul. As well, If we are celebrating Shabbat at camp, but not thinking about how we help people bring Shabbat in to their own lives each week, we are touching their souls, but only teaching them to celebrate Shabbat during the summer in their camp bubble. We need to be asking ourselves and our learners, “What will help you take this to the next level? What do you need to know? What inspiration do you need? What does Weekly Shabbat celebration look like to you and how do we support each other to get there?”. We need to challenge ourselves to think outside of the boundaries of our institutions and imagine new ways of not only impacting lives now, but in five, ten and twenty years.