5 Things I Learned About Innovation In Boston:
A Reflection on our Chicago Educators’ Innovation Trip to Boston

By Jay Rapoport, RJE 

I’ve always loved Boston, but I might love it even more now, having spent the past few days there deeply immersed in the innovation and change process. When I moved to Chicago back in 2014, I heard a rumor that Chicago Jewish Educators used to take learning trips together, and so I jumped at this chance to hear first-hand from agents of community change alongside 20 of my colleagues from Chicagoland. Generously supported by JUF Education along with their partners at Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) in Boston and Hebrew Union College (HUC-JIR) in New York, we spent 48 hours learning at two large reform urban synagogues (Temple Beth Shalom and Temple Beth Elohim) along with visiting Mayyim Hayyim, an egalitarian community Mikvah. So what did we learn?

1. Innovation is values-driven.

While it could be tempting to come back to Chicago with a new model for Religious Education, what I’m really returning with is a sense of the process, and how a community’s values drive decisions about how to innovate. Which of our values will guide our innovation over the coming years?

2. Innovation happens in partnership.

The strongest educational innovations that took place in Boston were supported by consultants, lay leaders and staffing for success. Both of the large Religious Schools we visited had made the decision in recent years to hire multiple full-time teachers, which allowed them to expand their flexibility in offerings, and enrich the educational planning process through ongoing collaboration. I am newly excited for our plan to apply to JUF’s Shifting the Paradigm cohort on Re-envisioning Hebrew Learning for 2020, as I believe their consultants will help us take our program to the next level, responding to challenges that have already been identified. I’ve also planned visits to three area congregations to observe their Religious Schools and learn from them in the coming months, and we will be hosting my colleagues in return.

3. Innovation is experimental, iterative and ongoing.

Many of the programs we observed were initially pilots which took a turn in different directions after early efforts, and continue to evolve each year. Even at Temple Sholom, many of the educational innovations we have instituted over the past few years have evolved over time, including our family retreat, mensch circles, Yom Horim family programs, and Shabbat Mishpacha. I’m excited to see where our current pilots – including the Shabbat Children’s Experience, midweek T’filah, Hebrew Through Movement and 7th & 8th grade Ma’amad creative prayer experiences – will lead us in coming years.

4. Innovation involves flexibility.

What are our non-negotiables? What are we willing to give up to move forward? I heard and thought about the depth of relationships possible in smaller group settings, as opposed to full-school experiences, and I’ve already seen the power of this in this year’s midweek pilots.

5. Innovation is responsive.

What are the pain points that will drive us toward change? I’ll be spending the next few weeks comparing our Religious School parent, teacher and student surveys from the past few years to identify trends and opportunities. I’m also in conversation with our newly re-formed Adult Education and Religious School parent committees, and task forces on Hebrew, Online Learning and Post-B’nai Mitzvah Engagement.

I’m grateful to the faculty that guided our Boston experience, including Joy Wasserman from JUF Education, Julie Vanek from CJP, Lesley Litman from HUC-JIR, and Rob Weinberg. This was an inspirational trip, and I’m excited to dive into our own innovation process in the weeks, months and years to come!

Jay Rapoport, RJE is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Sholom of Chicago and a composer of original Jewish music. www.ruachrock.com.