Beyond One-Size-Fits-All: Better Jewish Education

PortalsBy Rabbi Diana Fersko

Scott is a bright nine-year-old with a talent for playing saxophone. He attends a pre-professional school for musically gifted children. His parents are both Jewish professionals. Natasha is the child of parents who are disconnected from the Jewish community – her grandparents pay for her religious education. Sam’s parents are Israeli immigrants who speak Hebrew at home. Ella is an intelligent student with ADHD. She struggles to sit through a long day of secular school followed by hours of religious school.

These students, plus ten more, each with their own learning styles, make up one religious school classroom. On the one hand, this diversity is what makes our community a rich and inclusive tapestry. On the other, is it realistic to believe that we can effectively educate these very different children in one classroom, with one teaching style, through one educational model?

Look around – it’s pretty obvious that one size fits all is on the way out. Netflix queues, custom-blended cosmetics, gluten- and nut-free challah – we expect and take advantage of personalization and customization in our daily lives. Adaptable is good. Inflexible is bad. So why, when it comes to Jewish education, do we frequently offer a one-size-fits-all approach to children’s learning?

A one-size-fits all Religious School means that Scott can’t attend most of his religious school classes because he is traveling for saxophone performances. It means that Natasha’s parents will likely not receive the support they need to encourage her to pursue Jewish learning, and that Sam is bored throughout his Hebrew class. Natasha is forced to sit through yet another class, and she is asked to do something that is more than challenging – it’s unfair.

It’s time to change it up. To be effective, Jewish education must diversify. We cannot be a one-lane road. We must offer selection, choice, adaptability, and as much customization as possible.

The first step is experimentation. My synagogue is piloting several new programs this year. We now offer a Hebrew exposure course for children with Hebrew-speaking parents and for children that would like to experience conversational Hebrew. We have family education for those who would like to learn alongside their children. We have a one-on-one home-learning model where our teachers will meet students where they are both literally and figuratively. Multiple models give us the freedom to adapt the learning to the learner – to customize lessons and to play to each child’s strengths and interests.

By providing our families with integrity-rich choices, we are respecting them, and offering them the freedom to choose for themselves what works best for their family. The synagogue will adapt more to the student, not the other way around. It’s time to accept that one size does not fit all.

Rabbi Diana Fersko is the associate rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. The founder of Shabbat After Dark for 20s and 30s and Pathways to Judaism, a conversion studies program, she is piloting Portals, Stephen Wise’s K-7 home-learning program.