A Board President’s Swan Song

By Dorothy Tananbaum

There are things we do that last a moment and things we do that reverberate for a lifetime.

This past month, I completed my 3-year term as the chair of the board of The Jewish Education Project. It has been a very exciting period that saw so much positive change in my core areas of Jewish education.

Seven years ago UJA-Federation of New York realized that in a city as complex and diverse as New York we needed an independent communal agency focused on addressing some the biggest challenges facing Jewish education. How to keep young people engaged in Jewish learning beyond bar mitzvah? How to engage families with young children so that they would value Jewish education for their children? How to make sure that the Jewish education experienced in every setting was inspiring, meaningful and relevant in the lives of today’s children and teens?

UJA-Federation together with a new lay leadership at what was then called the BJE of Greater New York, took a gamble that helped to change the course of Jewish education in our community. They made the decision to transform the agency and enlarge it, not just in size but also in capacity and vision. I led the committee from the UJA-Federation at the time and we charged the re-imagined agency to shift its mission from one rooted in service to one committed to innovation and rooted in vision and leadership. No one thought it would be easy and it seemed at the time just as likely to fail as to succeed. There certainly were naysayers who wondered why we would even bother.

Now, 7 years later, it is clear to see that we were on to something and the timing was perfect even though we were shortly to enter the great recession that led so many to have to hunker down and even retreat from their aspirations. A recent brand survey conducted by The Jewish Education Project with over 1,200 respondents highlighted just how differently we are perceived today. The most common words employed to define us today were “innovative” and “important.” That is a far cry from what we heard before when many referred to us as “old school” and “out of touch.” We were able to change because of the incredible support we received from UJA-Federation, because of the talent we were therefore able to attract and because of the amazing innovators across the community and the country with whom we were able to partner.

By focusing on the next generation of educators, we have been fine tuning our ability to hear the voices of those who challenge us to be more creative and more innovative. At this year’s annual “Young Pioneers Award,” where we recognize inspiring and innovative educators under the age of 36 who are breaking new ground in educational practice in all types of settings, one of the award recipients from a relatively new day school attracting Jews from the former Soviet Union, showed a wonderful photo of a young child and an elderly man sitting and learning. We were told they were grandfather and grandson. The child held a book on his lap and the two were leaning into the text. Here’s the twist: though you might think that the grandfather was teaching the child it was actually the reverse. It was the child teaching the grandfather.

New times demand new thinking and approaches.

Though the DigitalJLerning network, a program designed with support from the Avi Chai Foundation, we work with day school educators to become more tech savvy and employ online and blending learning techniques in their classrooms. We’ve piloted new models of Hebrew school through the Coalition of Innovating Congregations that break the typical classroom paradigm and relocate learning into the day to day learning of students. We’ve organized focus groups with mothers of very young children to learn what they are actually looking for at this critical stage in their family’s development. We’ve listened to the voices of teens and helped to create programs like the Westchester Jewish Teen Learning Initiative, that incorporate the arts, theater, virtual learning, and community service, responding to what, where, and how teens are mostly likely to learn. Not everything is going to work the way we hope it will. Still, we aren’t free to quit trying.

As activist lay leaders we sit in a unique position within our various communities. We are charged with being the holders of the mission of our organizations and to focus on the wildly important goals that advance that mission. We guide strategy and play a key role in securing the resources needed to bring the strategy to life. We have to knock on every door and tell the story of why we devote our time and energy. We must challenge the status quo and we must hold our professionals accountable for executing on the strategies. We also need to be prepared to take risks and to hear for ourselves the voices of those who frequently go unheard. It is a formidable task and an immensely rewarding one.

When the lay/professional partnership is at its best, we create organizations that deliver on their promise, attract extraordinary talent (lay and professional) and guarantee a vibrant Jewish future. What a gift.