A Mighty System with Some Mighty Big Questions

question marksBy Anna Marx

Two weeks ago, JData released a provocatively titled study about declining enrollment in congregational schools. For those familiar with the American Jewish landscape – and specifically the declining numbers of families affiliated with congregations – this trend is not surprising. Many studies have confirmed these data. Certainly those of us familiar with congregational life have felt the effects first hand. But enrollment and affiliation rates only tell us a small part of the story. If we are going to make a difference in the lives of Jewish families across North America, then we need to know much more than just whether families are signing up. We, the communities of Shinui: The Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education, propose a series of questions that will help Jewish congregations and organizations offer Jewish experiences that speak to the diversity and complexity of Jewish families today. Moreover, it is important that we differentiate between those numbers over which we have some influence (e.g. families who feel unwelcomed) and those over which we have limited or no influence (e.g. a cultural shift away from traditional religious institutions).

Proposed Research Questions:

The following are a list of research questions that warrant further examination and/or attention. These questions are not necessarily new, but they have taken a second seat to discussion around affiliation and enrollment. We believe that these questions are much more critical to the future of Jewish education in the part-time setting.

  • How has the learning changed in part-time Jewish education and what impact is it having? 
    While enrollment has declined in congregational schools, we are increasingly aware of the incredible renaissance of Jewish education across the country. Part-time educational models are changing at rapid pace – new structures with more choice and flexibility, new methodologies like Project Based Learning and Hebrew Through Movement, increasingly experiential styles, regularized family learning in real Jewish time. The list goes on. Where once a “new model” of congregational school was something a small number of congregations were wrestling with, today it is a regular part of the vernacular across the country. So, despite the declining numbers, it’s time for us to put our heads together and understand how these changes have impacted the many thousands of children and families who are enrolled in such programs. While we all hope to reach as many Jewish children and families in our educational programs, no less important is to provide the best learning experience as possible to those families who opt in.
  • Aside from congregations, where else are families receiving Jewish education? And how many of them are choosing these alternatives?
    Many communities around the country have begun to see part-time offerings for Jewish families outside of the congregational setting. The San Francisco Bay Area, for example, is a hotbed for these kinds of programs (to name a few: Shalom Explorers, Wilderness Torah, and Edah). It would be very worthwhile to learn how many families are making these alternative choices. Are there enough families in non-congregational programs to explain some portion of the congregational school decline in enrollment? Families that choose these kinds of models should not be discounted from Jewish life; we should know more about these types of programs, their total numbers of families engaged, and opportunities for growth.
  • How do congregational school enrollment trends compare with national trends around religious, social, and political affiliation/enrollment trends?
    Many reports have been released recently about the changing ways in which people relate to institutions, especially for Millennials. With this in mind, it is very important that we consider how the enrollment rates of decline compare to other affiliation rates today. Is our decline steeper? Similar? Without this context, it is difficult to determine if congregations are outliers or merely facing similar challenges as many other groups. We might also identify organizations that have reversed this trend in order to determine possible solutions. Moreover, does the reduction in congregational affiliation actually indicate a diminution of interest in Jewish education for children? Is school enrollment a casualty of a larger trend, or is dissatisfaction or disinterest in the school a driver of that trend? In other words, what is the relationship between synagogue membership and supplemental school enrollment?
  • How do the current economic conditions and norms impact enrollment?
    Any examination of affiliation or enrollment trends should address the economic situations of the families in question. It’s no secret that engaging in Jewish life in the U.S. is a costly endeavor. The reality, too, is that most people are now accustomed to lifestyle choices in most areas of their lives; long-term membership and commitment are no longer a necessity in other parts of families’ lives. Just think of how we buy one song on iTunes as opposed to an entire album. Think about the highly particular coffee drinks we’re used to consuming, whether at a café or in our own homes. Why would parents approach part-time Jewish education any differently? What alternative models should congregations consider for tuition and enrollment?
  • What are families’ milestones and commitments in the adolescent years?
    Closely tied to the questions of financial models, national trends, and alternatives to congregations, is the ever-present and vexing question about post-b’nai mitzvah engagement. If families today are used to making highly customized choices and spending their money wisely at particular milestones, then it isn’t a far leap to think that they view congregational school similarly. For many families, congregational school is an investment to reach a highly valued experience of bar or bat mitzvah for their children. It would greatly benefit our community to better understand why the bar mitzvah is the shining light for these families and, critically, to know where and how we can meet them later down the road. If synagogue membership is not seen as a lifelong (or even childhood-long) commitment, then what else is highly valued and sought in later years?

Our Shinui communities are committed to innovation in part-time Jewish education. We believe that the congregational school of the past is just that – in the past. Today’s families have a whole new set of needs and standards. Our agencies all work with congregations and other organizations to re-examine the purpose, structure, delivery, and outcomes of part-time education. We have seen many impressive, dynamic models take hold across the country and many new sparks and glimmers rippling through our communities. While we continue to wrestle with these important issues on the ground, we call on our colleagues in the research domain to help answer these critical questions that will drive our community into a successful and thriving future.

Anna Marx is project director of Shinui: The Network for innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education, which brings together community agencies across the country to spark, nurture, and spread innovation in part-time Jewish education. Shinui’s Jewish education agencies represent Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.