Back to School

The Jewish community has been a-buzz in recent years about its “Innovation Ecosystem,” a term coined by Shawn Landres and Joshua Avedon in their report published in 2008. The report revealed that a substantial number of new Jewish organizations, which think and behave differently from existing, often flailing, Jewish institutions, are cropping up at a rapid pace. These organizations are radically changing the landscape of the Jewish community, meeting its most pressing needs, and providing creative, relevant, and substantive Jewish programming to Jews not participating in pre-existing structures.

My question is: Why aren’t more of our creative social entrepreneurs dedicating their energies to re-envisioning, re-imagining, and re-shaping those institutions that, arguably, have the potential to make the biggest impact on the Jewish community – our schools?

The primary audience of new Jewish initiatives has been the young adult population, now defined as ranging in age from the early 20s to the early 40s. As data has emerged revealing that the gap between college graduation and family life is widening, more and more new initiatives have been developed to reach these young adults who otherwise may not be affiliated with Jewish life. In fact, organizations that support these new Jewish initiatives, such as UpStart, Bikkurim, and PresenTense, are doing important work nurturing nascent organizations dedicated to reaching this young adult population.

Granted, there is a great need for Jewish institutions to serve individuals in this hitherto relatively non-existent phase of life. Schools, camps, youth groups, Hillels, and a myriad of other programs exist for youth from preschool through college; synagogues, JCCs, Federations, and a plethora of other institutions exist for families and older adults. It is critical to develop a robust array of offerings to engage Jewish young adults, and it is fitting that the majority of new Jewish ideas and institutions being developed are targeted at this population.

And yet. Sociologist Jack Wertheimer, in his preliminary findings of a report that the Avi Chai Foundation has commissioned into young Jewish leaders, revealed that 40% of today’s Jewish leaders went to Jewish day schools. And programs such as the Wexner Heritage Foundation Fellowship are predicated on the experience that increasing Jewish knowledge increases commitment to and creativity within Jewish causes.

We know that the foundation upon which our interest in life-long learning is built begins in pre-school through 12th grade education. The critical importance of a strong foundation is surely greater for Jewish education given the countervailing pull of secular education and American culture. Our schools, though in many respects of top-notch quality, could be doing a much better job providing both Jewish substance, catering to the broadest possible spectrum of the Jewish community, and providing phenomenal teachers and cutting-edge educational methodologies and opportunities. The schools need our brightest thinkers to challenge them, inspire them, and work to make them better. The Jewish future depends on this.

Our community has become so interested in and enamored with entrepreneurship, that it has, perhaps, forgotten its more humble, but at least equally impactful, cousin: intrapreneurship. The term was popularized in a 1985 business best-selling book by Gifford Pinchot III, “Intrapreneuring: Why You Don’t Have to Leave the Corporation to Become an Entrepreneur,” and was used by Steve Jobs, Apple Computer’s Chairman, in an interview in the September 1985 Newsweek article about Macintosh: “The Macintosh team was what is commonly known as intrapreneurship – only a few years before the term was coined – a group of people going, in essence, back to the garage, but in a large company.” Intrapreneurs do exactly what entrepreneurs do – they challenge the status-quo, and come up with cutting-edge ideas to meet a population’s most pressing needs. Instead of starting from scratch, though, they work within existing structures.

The purpose of innovation in the Jewish world today is to help our community provide meaning and substance to today’s Jewish population, whose needs and interests are different from those of prior generations. Too often, though, innovation is confused with “new.” It should not be our only purpose to create a whole new slew of institutions, whose financial needs begin to rival and take a toll on existing structures that, ultimately, are relevant and meaningful.

In addition to creating needed new programs and organizations, our most creative thinkers should also be putting their heads together to grapple with institutions and programs that already exist, that reach thousands of people, but which may benefit from some creative new programs and approaches. Jewish schools should be at the top of this list. There is no question that imbuing generations of children with a love and deep knowledge of Judaism will impact their engagement with Judaism throughout their lives. This is how our religion and culture has been perpetuated throughout time; the missive of “veshinantam levanecha,” – “teaching the children” – in Deuteronomy 11, has been the current of the Jewish enterprise for generations.

Instead of feeling threatened by individuals with innovative ideas, the administrators, lay-leaders, teachers, and parents in our schools should be open and willing to “go back to the garage,” and engage in the dialogue that will lead to substantive changes. Our schools should be paradigms of cutting-edge educational methods, should offer deep Jewish learning opportunities for our children when their minds are most elastic, provide our youth with a deep love of Judaism, and a simultaneous understanding of its richness and complexities. Our schools should provide the long runway that will allow the Jewish community to continue to fly and thrive into the future.

Let those buzzing around our new ecosystem remember to reach these young adults when they are younger, in the institutions that have been set up to provide meaningful, deep Jewish content and experiences that will shape these individuals for life. Let’s be more willing to experiment in our existing institutions, to take risks and be creative, and be open to new ideas. Let’s not forget the bread and butter that has been nourishing our Jewish community, and let’s make sure it’s not stale. Jewish entrepreneurs – sharpen your pencils. It’s time to go back to school.

Maya Bernstein is Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives at UpStart Bay Area.

This post is from the series Growing Jewish Education in Challenging Times.