Adaptive Change and the Complementary Jewish Education Ecosystem

by Leora W. Isaacs, Ph.D.

The argument that complementary Jewish education needs to change to adapt to 21st Century realities is certainly not a chiddush (earth shattering epiphany). With the largest percentage of Jewish students in North America enrolled in complementary programs, and the generalized feeling that overall this form of education has NOT succeeded in engaging the majority of eligible learners in meaningful Jewish learning and living, efforts have intensified over the past decade to do more than bemoan – rather to DO something about it.

Coming back from the recent convening in Montreal on the future of complementary education, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it would take to amplify the work that is underway and REALLY transform the field. The Montreal meeting was the third in a series of face-to-face and online conversations convened by JESNA (joined by The Jewish Education Project and our co-sponsors ADCA, the JEA, NATE, RENA, NewCAJE, Federation CJA of Montreal, BJE of Los Angeles and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles). The convenings were a forum for change-makers throughout North America to shine a light on and understand the key elements of current efforts to dramatically strengthen and transform complementary education, to envision the next steps in this process, and to begin to build a network of activists throughout the complementary education system committed to change and to leveraging their individual and joint efforts.

The first convening in New York last January distilled what makes the models ‘innovative’ and identified their key distinguishing features. The March convening in Los Angeles widened the lens to focus on community change initiatives and explored how to move beyond individual models to systemic redesign. The most recent convening in Montreal expanded the discussion further still to posit what it would take to build a continent-wide network for transforming complementary education (See for materials and recordings of the convenings.)

The convenings yielded several important ‘take-aways’ about the principles that must guide change efforts today:

  • The value of creating a collaborative effort where parents work together with educators;
  • The need to merge content and experience (because neither is sufficient alone);
  • The essential importance of RELATIONSHIPS – creating connections between children and families, children from day schools and congregational schools and congregation and community;
  • The benefit of taking learning beyond school walls;
  • The necessity of providing options in content and models of delivery because one size does not fit all; and
  • The value of introducing the element of choice into any educational program.

While changes on the institutional or programmatic level are necessary, they are clearly not sufficient to bring about the magnitude of change required to transform the field. Both the literature and our experience in educational transformation tell us that these kinds of changes are much easier to make if institutions work as part of a larger system whose components can support, complement, and reinforce one another. That is why it has been so helpful to think about complementary education as an ecosystem, which takes into account the multiple levels of interaction in a complex overlapping environment. The ecosystem approach transforms the grass-roots work of introducing new programs, models or methodologies (which is happening) into real systemic change. It’s needed because the make- up of the Jewish community (its diversity along multiple dimensions) and the new forces like prosumerism make it impossible for single institutions working alone to maximize the reach and impact of complementary education.

Thinking of complementary education as an ecosystem encourages simultaneous attention to both the components and dynamics of the community and provides a framework to:

  • map the terrain, identifying the key organizations and other providers (already and potentially involved, within and outside the Jewish community)and noting the level of diversity (or sameness);
  • identify the inhabitants (e.g., current and potential participants, providers, supporters, funders) and talk to them to understand how their behaviors, needs and desires affect and are affected by the ecosystem;
  • think about the atmospheric conditions both positive and negative that support or impede meaningful learning and engagement (such as the relationships between the various stakeholders and organizations, and the socio-cultural, demographic, geographic, and economic forces at play;
  • inventory the ‘natural resources’ (the human, financial, intellectual and social capital) and assess how effectively and efficiently they are being used; and
  • (most importantly) focus on the dynamics and forces, going beyond a mapping or even “linking the silos” to analyze the factors at play and to think about how it may be possible to intervene in adaptive ways to enable the components of the ecosystem to interact in ways that help each one thrive and the ecosystem as a whole be more robust and resilient.


Seeing their communities as ecosystems has enabled eight communities working under the umbrella of JESNA’s WOW! Project to think more holistically about ways to engage greater numbers of children and families in satisfying and impactful complementary Jewish educational experiences. [See] Employing a combination of Appreciative Inquiry and Design Thinking, WOW communities map the ecosystem and identify populations that are un- or under-served by current offerings and engage them as ‘prosumers,’ using their input to develop new options that can engage these learners and potential learners more effectively (such as: magnet programs appealing to specific sub-populations; a multi- congregational Learning Lab that allows students to learn at their own pace, involves families in the learning activities and puts teachers in the role of mentors to help guide their students through their learning experiences in and out of the classroom; emergent active inter-generational learning communities in under-served geographic areas; teen education and engagement programs that combine face-to-face programming in public schools and other places where teens naturally congregate with on-line meet-ups; having teens at the planning table to develop new programs and social networking platforms to reach their peers; use of community resources to create communities of practice and to incubate and increase capacity for change throughout the community.

Trace Pickering, a leading consultant on socio-cultural systems thinking, school transformation and community building who is instrumental in applying principles from the entrepreneurial ecosystem to the world of educational change adds another dimension to our thinking about what is needed to bring about the magnitude of change we are talking about. It has to do with the energy needed for adaptation to take place and for new approaches to displace old models. Pickering calls for changing the narrative, sharing learnings, and building a network of activities and agents to overcome the forces of inertia and self-interest that impede change. Pickering writes: “Today we see the ability to create energy, activity and innovation … networks of people, places, ideas and democratically-oriented organizations…When these networks coalesce and become purposeful about the future they are uncovering and bringing into the world they become a powerful force for transformation.”

Pickering identifies several key roles within the network of change-makers:

  • Agenda Activists who take the lead on shaping the agenda, pointing out emerging trends and topics and connecting with others via Tweet-ups and other social media, pushing forward interesting questions, stories, blogs and articles that push thinking in new directions and continually press the community to openly challenge assumptions;
  • Community Connectors who take the lead in ensuring all voices are at the table by introducing and recruiting people to the ecosystem, calling for greater diversity and promoting duplicative power (the more power you give away the more you and everyone gains);
  • Critical Friends who take the lead in noticing what is working and what is not by sharing community trends and behaviors that affect the culture of the ecosystem (positively or negatively);
  • Social Reporters/Storytellers who take the lead in creating a shared, internal memory by finding bright spots and shining bright light on them through blogs, posting and other social media;
  • Brokers and Systems Conveners who take the lead in helping the organizations within the ecosystem connect, communicate, and support the ecosystem and facilitate meaningful encounters across boundaries through workshops, retreats, conferences, meet- ups to promote connection and sharing;
  • Researchers/curators who manage and seek resources and information pertinent to the focus and needs of the ecosystem/community and enable ecosystems to be better consumers of research;
  • Agent Provocateurs who deliberately provoke discourse, pose challenging questions and play devil’s advocate to help network members dig deep and challenge assumptions;
  • Mentors who transmit the knowledge, social capital and psychosocial support needed to fully engage new members or learners.

The next steps are clear. We who see ourselves as change-makers in creating the future of complementary education need to build the ecosystem and the network of change activists that crosses the boundaries of role, position, denomination, institutional affiliation etc. and drive change forward collaboratively. Each of us must assume active roles within the ecosystem and consciously seek ways to create, strengthen and interweave the networks that will coalesce as a powerful force for transformation and change.

Leora W. Isaacs, Ph.D. is an expert consultant on change in Jewish education.