Ascending the Mountain of Innovation to Plant a Flag for a Thriving Religious School Education

By David Lewis and Rachel Margolis

Something significant happened in Los Angeles on June 11th. The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), and Builders of Jewish Education – Los Angeles partnered to create a cross-denominational day of learning on transforming religious school education, “Ascending the Mountain of Innovation.”

Nearly 150 invested registrants comprised of forty five religious school directors with their synagogue teams (including rabbinical partners and key lay leaders), from throughout California (San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego) came together for a full-day of wrestling with questions such as:

  • What are some of your challenges with the current state of your congregation and religious school?
  • What are some perceived costs of change in your setting?
  • What are some ideas and values that you’d like to see in your congregation’s vision of the future? In your religious school’s vision? How does this play out in your synagogue?

“The question is no longer ‘should we change?’” said Amy Asin, the Union for Reform Judaism’s Vice President and Director of Strengthening Congregations. “The questions are ‘what should we change to, and how do we get there?’”

These questions were addressed in a keynote by Miriam Heller Stern, PhD, National Director of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) School of Education and multiple workshops including: “Start with Why: How a Religious School Relates to a Synagogue’s Purpose” led by Amy Asin, and “Doing the Math: An Equation for Change that Works,” led by Rob Weinberg, PhD, past Director of HUC-JIR’s Experiment in Congregational Education. (Please visit to find a full list of workshop topics, descriptions, leaders, and articles related to the conference.)

“For years we’ve been saying this is a community that doesn’t have individual sites that are willing to change,” said Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman, EdD, Director of Youth Learning Engagement at Temple Beth Am. “But there’s a momentum for us to do this as a larger ecosystem and to see educators, rabbis, lay leaders and congregational presidents together with their professionals, really having conversations about change that is happening, not change that is presumed. And even though everybody might be in a different state in their change process, everybody has this aspiration to truly make what we do better for the members of our communities.”

What was the ‘secret-sauce’ that elevated the impact for the participants? We discovered three:

Partnership Between a National and Local Organization Increase Quality and Scope

The Conference on Religious School Innovation brought together three partners who had never worked jointly before. The conference was spearheaded by the URJ, with a generous grant from the LA Jewish Federation. Headed by Dr. Isa Aron and Rachel Margolis, and a URJ team that included Amy Asin, Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, and Lisa Langer, brought the expertise, experience, and research that no other organization could offer.

The Builders of Jewish Education of Los Angeles, the co-partner with the URJ for this conference, led by David Lewis and Phil Liff-Grieff, working with a task force of local educators, brought their knowledge of and relationships with the people and synagogues on the ground to help recruit participants and shape the content to ensure its applicability to the local field. In addition, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles provided the grant funding to make it free for LA participants, and seriously underwrite the costs of participants from our partner cities up and down California. This collaboration allowed all partners to maximize their strengths and expertise, which in combination provided a no-cost or low-cost content rich day of learning that felt more like a grassroots movement than a national conference.

‘Not Your Parents’ Conference. This Conference is Purpose-Driven.

“This conference was different. It brought together synagogue teams. It was a deep-dive on the specific issue of religious school innovation, not a buffet of often non-connected content. This singular focus raised the value of this conference exponentially”, said Rabbi Bruce Raff, of Temple Judea Tarzana.

A major goal of this conference was to support the congregational educators in building enthusiasm amongst their teams for innovation in the religious school setting. Beginning with a pre-conference workshop for Directors of Congregational Education/Religious School only, the URJ and BJE aided these directors in identifying, forming, and preparing their individual synagogue teams. The conference day schedule focused solely on Religious School Innovation, so all workshops focused on either theory of change or “Religious School Bright Spots” (sharing and deconstructing models of religious school innovation from throughout the US).

In addition, the conference was constructed as a ‘team’ experience. Multiple blocks of the day were designated for synagogue teams to re-convene, to share what they had learned from the various workshops they attended, applied their learning to their congregational settings… all while being guided through the discussion through facilitation/questions provided by the URJ. Evaluations of the conference showed that the majority of participants left strengthened in the belief that change is possible, excited to take action for change in their congregations, with ideas about next steps. Most importantly, this momentum was not cultivated in a lone-professional, but provided a foundation for change by bringing a group of people from the synagogue together.

Conference is a Launching PointNot an End Destination.

This conference was not created to be a rinse and repeat conference, finding a particular model and content to be brought back year after year. The goal of this conference was to cultivate and foster a LA-wide movement to help our religious schools thrive. As a result, building upon the momentum built upon dozens of synagogues, beginning fall 2017, BJE in partnership with the URJ, and funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, will be convening a coalition of interested and ready Los Angeles complementary Religious Schools to further the conversation and help those schools take a deeper dive into the change process. The JFLA grant will offer educators and their synagogue teams the opportunity to do intensive learning on innovation, provide a community of practice of like-minded synagogues to explore and work on innovation collaboratively, and provide them with professional coaches to support both the educator and the synagogue teams.

“There is a power in a larger conveying of like-minded synagogues. For many volunteer leaders, they received a greater understanding of Jewish Education as a field, both its challenges and opportunities. Rabbis left inspired to take the message to the entire synagogue. Educators were able to make their teams more cohesive and energized. Yes, we will meet together as an entire ecosystem again…but it won’t be to repeat this content, or to organize our learning in the same way. We are looking forward to finding new ways for our entire community to continue on this journey together”, said David Lewis, of the BJE of Los Angeles.

The wind is now officially at the backs of Religious Schools in Los Angeles. Excitedly, this momentum is not only true here. The BJE of Los Angeles is a proud member of Shinui: the Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education, a network of ten community agencies across North America with back-bone support from the Davidson School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Together, we are working to spark, nurture, and spread innovation in part-time Jewish education.

Los Angeles is not the only city with gaining enthusiasm for re-thinking religious school, it is reflective of a national movement. A national coalition has been born, and is continuing to grow; made up of national, community, and local partners; comprised of every denomination and from various starting points. A conference like this could be coming to your town soon, or something even better. Join us in bringing synagogue education into the 21st Century.

The co-authors of this article are also the co-coordinators of the conference. They are:
David Lewis, Director and Head Consultant, Jewish Education Services, Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) Los Angeles and Rachel Margolis, Project Manager, Union of Reform Judaism (URJ).