Fellowship urges educators to get picky about priorities

A new framework proposes 18 key dimensions of Jewish life

Connect with Jews around the world. Access Hebrew and Jewish terminology. Experience Jewish arts and culture.

Those are just a few of the items listed as the goals of a Jewish education in a new framework created by M2: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. The plan, “18 Jewish Things a Young Jew Should Know, Care About, and Be Able to Do by Age 18,” forms the basis of an executive fellowship program launched April 7 whose goal is to disseminate the framework’s ideas throughout the community. But first, the fellows must identify which of the items are their top priorities.

The framework, written by Barry Chazan, a professor at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership, and Ben Jacobs, an associate research professor at The George Washington University, proposes dimensions of Jewish life that educators can use to shape their curricula and goals. Other examples: Caring about Israel and its people, and exploring sanctity, spirituality, and prayer. Commissioned by the Jim Joseph and Marcus Foundations, the Maimonides Fund and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, it was published in 2019 by the NYU Applied Research Collective for American Jewry.

“Jewish education occurs across a wide range of venues and institutions, from camp to campus, from classroom to tour bus. The 18 x 18 fellowship is an attempt to bring all of those institutions into one discussion, to debate and determine what goals we are pursuing, what outcome are we working toward,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Fund, which supports a number of M2 programs and is funding this fellowship.

That choice isn’t easy, but it’s necessary, said Debbi Cooper, director of engagement at PJ Library, an international program that sends free Jewish children’s books to families. She’s one of the 18 members of the virtual fellowship, which integrates the framework with an eight-step change management process devised by John Kotter, an author and entrepreneur, M2’s CEO Shuki Taylor said.

“None of these 18 things are debatable as good outcomes,” Cooper told eJewishPhilanthropy. “But we have to choose, and the program helps us figure out which ones are most important to us. We can’t do all 18 well, all the time, for every family.”

Employees of national organizations such as Birthright Israel North America and the Foundation for Jewish Camp comprise the majority of the fellowship class, but it also includes some local nonprofits: a federation, a Hillel, and two JCCs. Neither day schools nor supplementary schools, such as those that are part of synagogues, are involved at this stage, due to M2’s emphasis on “experiential” education, which tends to happen outside the classroom.

However, the ideas behind the 18 x 18 framework is likely to spread widely, because Jewish education increasingly blurs those boundaries, as in partnerships between day schools and camps, said Miriam Heller Stern, a professor who directs the school of education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. She recently joined the fellowship’s advisory committee.

The creation and dissemination of frameworks is a commonplace practice in education, Stern said. A framework that is too prescriptive or rigid will not be widely adopted, and this one strikes a balance between flexibility and vision, she added.

“Having a common vocabulary can unite these efforts and give us a sense that Jewish learning and Jewish engagement is happening with some kind of grand plan,” she said. “I think that’s the desire here.”

The Jewish community, however, hasn’t attempted something on this scale since the Mandel School of Education created its “Visions Project” about 20 years ago. “That brought together different kinds of educators and educational philosophers,” Taylor said. “It stimulated a lot of creativity.”

Taylor learned about the new framework as it was being developed, and kept thinking about it.

“It felt broad enough to be inclusive, and specific enough to be particular,” he said. The ambitiousness of its vision, however, was keeping it “on the shelf. It felt too big to take on,” he said.

Initial conversations between M2 and the Maimonides Fund, a longtime supporter, centered on how to actually use the framework, giving rise to the realization that educators would first need a way to interact with it. With the help of a board member who works as a consultant, they found the Kotter model, and used it to create a detailed plan. The fellowship will last 18 months, and is broken down into five phases, each of which culminates in the production of certain materials, such as lists of goals, reports, feasibility analyses and road maps.

Taylor named the Russel Berrie, Crown, Jim Joseph, and Lippman Kanfer foundations as other supporters of M2, in addition to foundations that remain anonymous.

In addition to disseminating these broad ideas, the fellowship will generate a kind of map for educators, leaders and funders about where the American-Jewish community is focused, and what areas might need attention.

“That process is a way to assess where the community is strong, where are we weak, what represents a need for investment,” Taylor said.