From Surviving to Thriving: The Coming Revitalization of Congregational Education

PSJC Hebrew School; screenshot

By Dr. Bill Robinson

[This is the twelfth in a weekly series of posts from a coalition of institutions across the continent devoted to nurturing the emerging transformation of congregational and part-time Jewish education. The series is curated by the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson Graduate School of Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.]

The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
William Gibson

This quote began our eJP series. Looking back in reflection, what does this future look like? And, how do we evenly distribute it (bring it to scale)?


In a recent issue of Gleanings, Barry Holtz observed that since the 1990s, concerned and committed philanthropists have lavished funding on Jewish education to ensure our “continuity.” Stuart Charmé and Tali Hyman Zelkowicz have referred to this obsession as the “survivalist” paradigm in which we aim, through the vehicle of Jewish education to ensure the survival of the Jewish people, Jewish institutions, and Jewish practices.

Yet, we have been wrong to think that Jewish education (especially that of the congregation) will solve the perceived social and cultural problems of intermarriage and assimilation, to stem the decreasing flow away from synagogue membership, and to preserve the ritualized forms of Shabbat morning prayer towards which we devote so many educational hours. Despite our best intentions, this mistaken survivalist view has only contributed to the decline of congregational education.

Among the decaying ruins of congregational education though, we find new blossoms of hope and inspiration emerging from among diverse congregations across North America. These innovations offer a new vision for congregational (and other forms of part-time, communal-based Jewish) education. At the heart of this vision is the concept of thriving. As David Bryfman propounded in that same issue of Gleanings,

For Jewish learning to be both meaningful and relevant it must empower Jews (and fellow travelers) to thrive – in their personal success and happiness, in being more socially connected to each other and their communities – and better equipped to make the world a better place.

As Scott Aaron of Chicago similarly asserts in his article in this eJP series,

Their Jewish identity has to coalesce meaningfully with their larger human identity and provide support mechanisms for their larger needs if we want them to live positively as a modern people. The practical challenge of this premise is: How do we actually educate for happiness?

The good news is that congregations and others are showing the way. Here are two exemplary examples (“sparks of light”): At Community Synagogue of Rye in Westchester, New York, children and families learn in each other’s homes as well as around town to explore how Judaism can help them live everyday lives of meaning and purpose. In their “Chavurah” model, children decide what they will be learning from week to week based on their own interests, questions, and experiences. At Temple Shir Tikvah in Greater Boston, children learn how to thrive as adults by becoming active participants in the meaningful life of the congregation. In their “Learning Corps” model, parents learn about temple work, committees connect with the religious school, and children benefit by experiencing what it’s like to contribute to the community.

Take a few minutes to watch the videos, and check out other models sparked and curated by the Jewish Education Project in New York and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston.

There are many others examples out there, several of which have been profiled in previous articles in this eJP series. What they illustrate together is the power of child-centered, relation-based, and life-relevant learning. In addition, they highlight the vital importance of building and grounding education in community.

As humans, we do not thrive alone. We learn to thrive and thrive best within communities of meaning and caring. This assertion doesn’t go against the grain of contemporary society, despite the dominant myths of the sovereign individual and consumer. As recent research on millennials from How We Gather illuminates, all humans (not just Jews) desire authentic experiences that promote personal transformation, purpose finding, community, and that transcendent “something more.”

Moreover, as educators, we know that education happens best – actually education only truly works – when it exists in real and tactile relation with a lived experience toward which one is being educated. Learners need to see and actually experience a community of adults engaged in serious and joyful practice of Jewish living in order to make meaningful and relevant the Jewish education they are undertaking. To appropriate a term from the sociologist Peter Berger, the life of the community makes plausible the vision of Jewish living toward which they are being educated or acculturated. Put another way, education does not work if the learners are not regularly and powerfully experiencing the life of thriving toward which one is being educated. Furthering the assertion from Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, we not only need textbooks, and not only text-people whose lives are the text that our students read; we also need text-communities, who model with vibrancy the living and being we are inspiring and guiding the next generation towards becoming.

Let us not run from the pursuit of quality congregational education, rather we must embrace those experiences of congregational life (and other Jewish communities) that best exemplify a thriving communal life. In this emerging vision, congregations become a source of strength for education, not a weakness. In this emerging vision, instead of learning about the need to engage in service to the world, we learn to thrive ethically by doing service and reflecting upon our experiences through the lens of Jewish texts. Instead of learning to perform set prayers, we learn to thrive spiritually through experiencing moments of transcendence and reflecting upon them through the language of ritual. Instead of learning about the importance of community, we learn to thrive socially by experiencing and improving the congregational community in which we live. Through this approach, Hebrew and text learning are neither rote nor disconnected from one’s everyday life, rather they take on vitality because they are the essential building blocks for thriving as Jews in contemporary society. They teach us the ways to serve the world, wrestle with our own spiritual questions, and actively participate in caring community.


Making sure this emerging, vital future becomes evenly distributed requires that we think and work differently than we have previously. Most importantly, we need to work in common beyond the confines of our own institutions and communities. We need to take a collective approach that borrows from the successful strategies of social movements. In particular, but not exclusively, we need to invest in:

  • Sourcing and curating the “sparks of light” that will illumine the way.
  • Nurturing leadership with the commitment and skills to adapt and nurture these sparks within their own institutions and communities.
  • Building networks of leaders working in common inside congregations, within communities, and across the continent.

Further, we need to engage in ongoing research and reflection that will guide us to become continually more effective in sparking and spreading innovative models of congregational (and part-time, communal-based Jewish) education that will inspire and guide children, teens, and families to live thriving Jewish lives in contemporary society.

During the course of this spring, you have been reading in this eJP series the ideas and visions of participants in an emerging coalition committed to transforming the paradigm of congregational (and part-time, communal-based Jewish) education. A vital part of this continental coalition is Shinui: a network of 10 communal agencies (located in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Toronto) that formed with initial funding from The Covenant Foundation. We, at The Davidson School of JTS through our Leadership Commons, have been working closely with Shinui (and the larger coalition) and are inspired by the new possibilities that we can achieve together. As Anna Marx, the Project Director of Shinui, recently articulated:

The partnership with the Davidson School offered us an important opportunity to work together to reflect on the individual approaches of our partner agencies and to begin to think forward about the impact we might make as a North American network.”

For the first time ever, we have both a new, inspiring vision emerging from diverse congregations and the willingness of communal and national agencies from across denominations and throughout North America to work together to transform congregational education.

We ask that you join us in leading together toward this revitalized, thriving future for the Jewish people.

Dr. Bill Robinsion is dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.