Change from the Center: Facilitating Innovation that Lasts

By implementing and teaching in new models of powerful learning, we occupy a unique role in the social network of a congregation.

by Hilary Schumer
with Tara Siegel and Shana Zionts

We often hear about two models of organizational change: top-down and bottom-up. The first is initiated by someone at the top: JC Penny’s different advertising innovations, for instance, or a company like HP hiring a new CEO in hopes that it will bring improved fortunes. The second model emerges organically at a grassroots level and then creates social or even legal changes; a current example is the Israeli group Women of the Wall. Both visions of change have the potential to be inspiring. Both struggle to be sustainable, because the changes often fail to permeate all levels of the organization.

There may be a third model for organizational change, which is currently taking place in nine synagogues in New York: change that begins from the center.

The Jewish Education Project’s Coalition Educators are part of the beginning of a wave of experimentation in shared and communal resources. We are active agents who create and implement innovative Jewish education. We work in three different congregations each, all member of the Coalition of Innovating Congregations: Congregation Emanuel of Westchester, Community Synagogue of Rye, Temple Israel Center of White Plains, Congregation Emanuel of the City of New York, Ansche Chesed, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Temple Shaaray Tefila New York City, Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore, and Temple Sinai of Roslyn.

We lead professional learning and teaching in new models of Jewish education. Coalition Educators are also network weavers; connecting good and even wild ideas from one congregation to another is essential so that congregations learn from one another.

We help facilitate change from the center. What does “center” mean? It means we exist in the physical center of each of our congregations. It also means we promote collaboration between the nine congregations with whom we work. By implementing and teaching in new models of powerful learning, we occupy a unique role in the social network of a congregation. We are on the ground, in the trenches of educating, and we are also engaged in designing models and professional development with a synagogue’s leadership and administration. Our perspective is at once bird’s eye and exceptionally detailed, pixelated and panoramic. We can hear the concerns of the administrators and validate the efforts of their teachers. We can speak to both perspectives, and we are able to engage them in productive dialogue with each other.

As Coalition Educators we propose new models for powerful learning and we also embody a new model for implementing innovation. In facilitating conversation and creating a culture of peers who help one another think critically about their work, we help to empower all stakeholders to take co-ownership of the change. We do not consider ourselves in the framework of the “sage of the stage” nor the “guide on the side.” Rather we are the “peer-mentor in the center.” In not working for any congregation, we are able to more effectively work with everyone.

This leads to authentic and appropriate innovation. After working with a Westchester reform congregation for one year, a Coalition Educator had built relationships with families as an educator and with the synagogue staff as a thought partner. When one of the rabbis suggested creating more intimate moments for family education, she was able to guide a conversation about how to create a realistic home-hosted model, because she understood the perspectives of both groups.

We also facilitate the exchange and implementation of ideas from one congregation to another. One of our Reform congregations in Manhattan, for instance, has a model of inter-grade learning that a Coalition Educator has modified to perfectly fit the community building goals of a Conservative Westchester synagogue. We are able to see the ways in which one model of family education at a Reform congregation in Long Island and another model at a non-denominational congregation in Manhattan can inform and improve each other. The true value of being in the “middle” of two congregations lies not just in sharing ideas, but in knowing how to tweak a program to fit a community’s unique needs.

The Coalition Educator position is an experiment in this model of change from the center, and the role may not exist forever. Towards the end of the third year of this experiment, we have compiled some data. What follows is a list of helpful outcomes of the Coalition Educator experience, which we believe are transferable:

  • Creating and emphasizing collaboration
  • Creating a culture of collegial critical thinking
  • Transparent visioning
  • Supporting a culture of shared resources
  • Creating outlets to highlight and share successes

These are only a few of the tangible results of our time in this role. From our place in the middle, we believe these outcomes suggest that transcending boundaries within and between congregations is a productive and worthwhile use of often scarce resources.

We know that change is difficult, particularly for those of us who are deeply committed (and often emotionally connected) to Jewish communal work. This model of change from the center offers a framework for change and innovation that is consensus-driven, authentic, and ultimately, more sustainable.

Hilary Schumer, Shana Zionts, and Tara Siegel are Coalition Educators for The Jewish Education Project, each working in three synagogues in the Coalition of Innovating Congregations to bring vision and expertise to new models of part-time Jewish education as well as leading innovative learning experiences and professional development. The Coalition of Innovating Congregations is a joint initiative of The Jewish Education Project and the Experiment in Congregational Education, generously funded by UJA-Federation of New York. To learn more, visit