Educating for Creativity and Educating for Participation

We see education as a powerful vehicle for cultivating a person’s Jewish journey but not so much the journey of the Jewish people.

by Bill Robinson, PhD

In this time of fascination with the Pew study, we are once again becoming obsessed with how to engage and educate a growing mass of individual Jews and Jewish families who are in some way seen as marginal or falling off the edge. This time, they are the Jews “not by religion.” A year ago, in the New York Community Study, they were the increasingly unengaged non-Orthodox.

We are now sounding the calls to renew efforts at educating each child, teen and family so that, as they grow up, they will engage in life-long, meaningful Jewish journeys. But, what if we stopped focusing on the mass of individual Jews and instead looked at the future of the Jewish people?

The authors of the Community Study (Steven M. Cohen, along with Jacob B. Ukeles and Ron Miller) make the following remark:

“The emergence of post-denominational Judaism, such as embodied in havurot and independent minyanim, may be culturally significant particularly for the Jewishly educated, but, in the New York survey data, it is demographically insignificant, as only 0.1% answered “post-denominational or trans-denominational” in response to the denomination question.”

In a previous study done with Ari Kelman in 2005, Steven M. Cohen describes a renaissance in Jewish culture taking place in New York mostly outside the traditional Jewish institutions. Notably, the performers and audience at these events were predominantly graduates of day schools and camps. While demographically insignificant, this “engaged middle” have played an outsized role in the emerging Jewish life. They are inordinately the creators and active participants in the emergent minyanim, in the cultural realm, and in the entrepreneurial sector.

I believe they are leading the journey of the Jewish people (at least that large portion that ranges from modern Orthodox to the committed secular). They are creating the cultural and religious future that the mass of unengaged Jews and their children will either choose to inhabit or not. From the perspective of the Jewish people, they are – to use Richard Florida’s term – our “cultural creatives.”

To restate what has become rather obvious, we are in a time of great ferment involving both decline and renaissance. The important questions for us should not be how many Jews keep Shabbat, build a sukkah, visit Israel, or attend a Jewish cultural event. The questions should be: How are these Jewish rituals becoming once again meaningful and life-relevant for people? And, how do we foster and support those cultural creatives who are making this happen already and those who will in the future?

To revisit Ahad Haam, “More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews.” We continually measure how many Jews keep Shabbat. We need to re-focus our efforts on educating and supporting those who will be able to offer the Jewish people creative ways of observing Shabbat that are meaningful and relevant to our time.

Ever since that 1992 National Jewish Population Study, we have been looking to education as the panacea for the decline in Jewish identity and specific Jewish behaviors, from in-marriage and synagogue affiliation to ritual observance and cultural participation. Yet, we have been indiscriminant in considering our market. We act as if the end goal of education should be the same for everyone. Thus, our goals have been to get everyone (or as many Jews as possible) to a day school or a Jewish camp, because we know (in part due to Cohen’s research) that these work for building strong Jewish identity. Or, since most (non-Orthodox) families still send their children to congregations for their pre-Bnai Mitzvah education, let’s transform congregational education to emulate day schools (better teaching) or camps (immersive experiences).

But, what if we split our (non-Orthodox) market into cultural creatives and cultural participants? In that case, we would still want to increase the number of kids in day schools and the number of kids who spend their growing years at camps eventually becoming counselors (where the real impact is). As Marc Kramer wrote recently here, in Beyond Identity: Day Schools Deliver Jewish Literacy,

“For the hard work of achieving competency, the confidence to take ownership over our heritage and translate it in ways that it continues to be resonant and meaningful for Jews today and in the future – for this, there is no substitute for day schools.

But, we would not expect to increase these numbers beyond 25% of the total (non-Orthodox) market, and maybe not even that high.”

I am not arguing that congregational education on occasion will not produce adults who are helping to create the Jewish future. There are many of us working now in Jewish education who went to congregational schools. But, we typically found other avenues of educational engagement. I joined BBYO and went on a NFTY trip to Israel at 16. In college, I continued being involved at Hillel and in the Reform movement, including editing our campus Reform Jewish periodical. But, the overwhelming majority will not. As Danny Pekarsky and Seymour Fox (z”l) would ask: What should be our educational vision for them?

The alternative avenues mentioned above point toward an answer: The goal of congregational education should be to increase the likelihood that their graduates would be able to access and (more or less passively) participate in a Jewish future that is being predominantly designed by others. In general education, we do not expect everyone taking math or music to become mathematicians or artists. Yet, we hope that they can use math when needed in their lives and their lives can be elevated through an appreciation of many forms of art. Thus, we teach basic math skills and we (at least used to) teach art appreciation to everyone.

Analogously, we should be providing those unengaged (or perhaps a better term is under-engaged) families and their children with the skills to appreciate the emerging Jewish culture. They should be conversant in the study of our sacred Jewish texts and the practice of life-cycle rituals and holy day celebrations. They should have at least once encountered the divine through prayer immersion during a retreat and discovered what it means to take on the practice of a mitzvot during their everyday life. They should also develop an appreciation for Jewish arts through Avoda Arts, explore Jewish approaches to the environment through family weekends at the Jewish Farm School, and participate in service learning programs found through Repair the World.

I am not asserting that we should have a cultural or religious elite socially separate from the masses. Quite the contrary, we should all interact, talk together about Judaism and its relevance for life today, and each in our own way build the future of the Jewish people. Moreover, lacking this constant interaction, what I’ve referred to as our cultural creatives may end up only creating Jewish experiences relevant for themselves and not accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, the educational system we have today actually works against this creative mixing. We all agree that relationships are important to building identity, and we are all talking about how to build stronger relationships within congregations. But, we need even more importantly to build relationships that connect Cohen’s increasingly unengaged with the engaged middle (or the Pew study’s Jews not by religion with Jews of both religion and culture). More specifically, how often do congregational and day school kids have the opportunity to build strong and lasting relationships? Perhaps more so in the Conservative movement, which has a larger share of day school kids attending religious school prior to Bnai Mitzvah. But when is this a particular aim of our national educational system, especially across denominations?

Recognizing that children and teens have been and will continue to be educated primarily in separate systems requires that we work consciously to bridge this divide through new forms of mifgash and shared experiences. Without personal connections developed as a kid, it is less likely that we will see congregational-educated young adults walk into a service at Hadar or join the bike ride at Hazon. One explanation for the negative impact of one day a week religious schools is that they create bonding capital among similar families all of whom have little care to participate actively in Jewish life. We need to add more bridging capital, to borrow from Robert Putnam.

Thus, the importance of congregations joining together and exploring new ways educating their children and teens collectively – such as Joy Levitt’s Jewish Journey Project and our Westchester Jewish Teen Learning Initiative. We also need to consider bringing kids together across these divides through youth groups, Israel trips, cultural activities, and, yes, at least a couple of years at Jewish camps, as well as alternative afterschool and summer enrichment programs at day schools.

Most importantly, we need to have a clear and (sociologically) reasonable understanding of the purpose of congregational-based education. The fact that their graduates continue to fall short compared to day school or camp graduates should neither be surprising nor condemning. In that they continue to show no difference to those that did not receive any Jewish education is disheartening, though we must begin to differentiate our findings between older graduates and those who have experienced the results of the congregational change efforts that have been going on since the 1990’s.

For many years, we have been complaining that congregational education has become (like music) Jewish appreciation 101. Great efforts focusing on teacher education and new models of learning have gone into addressing this situation. But, what if those who intentionally or intuitively created this system were right in the first place? Maybe it is all about learning to appreciate, as long as congregations guide and support their children, teens and families in experiencing Jewish camp for a few years and the programs of the entrepreneurial innovators, and promote interactions with day school students of all denominations. Maybe our singular, unsystematic focus on congregational education in isolation has been what’s wrong.

The journey of the Jewish people is not the sum total of every individual journey. Those journeys intersect with one another, and we need to begin understanding how those individual journeys already do and could better interact to produce a greater whole. We need to add to our educational psychology an educational sociology. When Steven M. Cohen speaks about the importance of social connections or when my colleagues Seth Cohen and Justin Korda (through the leadership of the Schusterman Foundation) work to network otherwise diverse groups of alumni and entrepreneurs, we are beginning to have that conversation. It’s time to more seriously address the sociology of Jewish peoplehood and the education of the Jewish people.

Bill Robinson, PhD, is Chief Strategy Officer at The Jewish Education Project.