Comparing notes

From the classroom to the boardroom: Engaging Jewish educators in setting community education objectives

In Short

New tools and innovative ideas are only as good as the expertise of those who wield them, and we downplay that expertise at our peril.

American Jewish education is undergoing a profound evolution due to the unexpected migration to online learning over the past year. Every aspect of Jewish education—from early childhood to day schools to supplementary education to summer camps—utilized digital spaces for their class work and programming during the pandemic. While the widespread use of these mediums was thrust upon us by necessity, they are quickly becoming a central educational tool. In my city of Chicago, for example, a recent study showed that ¾ of our supplementary education programs are planning to continue with some aspect of their education work virtually next school year when almost none of them were on-line 18 months ago.  

While the positive impact of disruption is something that has been embraced in American Jewish education of late, it is not the first time that changes in the general culture have transformed the way we educate our children. For example, the development of the Bureaus of Jewish Education beginning in the early 20th century set the stage for how we educate most of our children today. Emulating the best practices of public schools in America—then educating most Jewish children—the bureaus brought modern secular education techniques of pedagogy, language instruction and assessment into Jewish and Hebrew education and introduced the filters of social science to help us understand and capitalize on the student-teacher interaction. This was the disruptive technology of its day in Jewish education, just as Zoom is proving to be in our day. By the Second World War, bureaus existed in most sizable American Jewish communities as education providers to students and training resources for teachers. In many communities they served as the central provider for non-day school education in the form of community “Hebrew schools.” Perspectives change with time though, and what was once viewed as innovative is now often perceived as outmoded. Today the once-innovative educational support roles that bureaus played in their communities in the 20th century are increasingly being directly filled by federations. But, as we are again learning in our current phase of disruption, new tools and innovative ideas are only as good as the expertise of those who wield them, and we downplay that expertise at our peril.

Over the unprecedented past school year, I engaged with my educational leadership colleagues around the country to compare notes and ideas on how they were supporting this unplanned and unprecedented pivot to online education. I heard stories about how different communities were approaching the disruption in our educational institutions that raised some troubling questions for me. Who was leading the process of rethinking learning in a community? Who had support and resources for the shift and who did not? Who was being empowered as subject matter experts in education to strategize the shift and who was not? Who felt nurtured by the community and who felt ignored? Most importantly, could we draw any lessons from these events to help us better understand the strengths and weaknesses in how a given community makes and enacts its education policy and resource decisions? 

I took the opportunity of some pandemic-induced down time to informally query and interview a sample group of 15 colleagues in educational leadership from around the country to try and glean some insight around these concerns. They are all members of the Association of Directors of Communal Agencies (ADCA)– a network of communal professionals leading educational support efforts in their communities–who agreed to speak with me off the record. The ADCA’s member communities consist of a wide variety of population sizes and geographic locations, and about 2/3 have their traditionally communal agency roles filled by their federation now. The colleagues I interviewed reflected that proportion with 10 working for federations, three leading independent communal agencies, and two leading a hybrid model of both.

In a nutshell, I gleaned the following from these interviews: 

  • Dialogue About Education Needs to Be a Communal Leadership Process – Many communities that have absorbed their communal agencies into their federations would benefit from an ongoing reflection process about what the community’s objectives are for Jewish education in their city. Each community will come to their own conclusions, but the important part is that there is a process to reach those conclusions. A significant number of interviewees working in federations reported never having had an in-depth conversation with senior lay and/or professional leadership about the community’s educational objectives before the pandemic. Many also disclosed never having been consulted as a subject matter expert on education before major policy decisions affecting education are made. The pandemic threw everyone for a loop and provided an opportunity to foster substantive discussions about educational objectives between education staff and senior leadership. As we move forward, every communal structure should facilitate consistent dialogue between educational leadership and its senior lay and professional leadership to ensure that all stakeholders are fully informed of the community’s education efforts and in agreement on desired educational objectives for the community at large.  
  • Budgets Need to Reflect Educational Objectives – The educators reported dialoguing most often with senior federation leadership about budgets. Budgets reflect priorities but without context those priorities are not apparent to all. What can be learned about a community’s educational priorities by probing the objectives of the education budget rather than just the amounts? The budgeting process should include an opportunity to brief senior budget managers on how funds are being used and not simply in what amounts. This means more than just X spent Y dollars to provide classes to Z amounts of students. It means ensuring there is clarity on why that expenditure was of educational value and fulfilled communal educational objectives. That information should be factored into how budget decisions on education are made as much as whether the budget meets larger fiscal goals.   
  • There has to Be a Balance Between Innovation and Administration – Respondents from both federation departments and other communal agencies detailed struggling with an overabundance of reporting for grants from private donors and foundations before the pandemic, but a lessening of it when it came to grants given as COVID relief to support the pivot to online learning. Too much paperwork is not a new complaint, but it does raise the question about when bureaucracy impedes innovation and what can be done to better meet the accountability needs of the donors and the implementation schedules of the educators?   
  • Long Term Improvement in a Community’s Educational Objectives Cannot be Measured Solely Through Short-Term Outcomes – Respondents from both federation departments and other communal agencies reported changes over time in communal support prior to the pandemic for varying Jewish education modalities that were often more focused on finding magic bullets than meeting agreed communal education outcomes. For example, many reported an increase in resources prior to the pandemic for teen programming, camping and Israel travel at the expense of support for early childhood education. But the pandemic highlighted the overlooked central role of Jewish early childhood education to working parents in the community when these programs were in danger of permanent closure due to fiscal paucity going into the pandemic. How can we learn from this and other imbalances to communally approach educational support from the perspective of the forest rather than the tallest tree before the next forest fire? More consistent and reflective dialogue between communal leadership and the educational implementers in a community can help better set common objectives for education and determine how to take a reasoned approach to innovation so that we are relying on a strong arsenal rather than a magic bullet.   

The role of Communal Agencies has changed with the times but their ability to realign and support communal education was underappreciated until the pandemic. They were instrumental in many communities helping local Jewish education not only survive but improve during the pandemic crisis. As we begin to incorporate new technology and approaches to Jewish education in our communities going forward, communities will benefit from continued engagement with educational expertise around the leadership table as they set post-pandemic programming and economic objectives. Just as federation leadership regularly consult experts in their work on Israel and Overseas and Health and Human Services, they need to also engage regularly with experts in Jewish education within their own communities and on a national level. Federations have assumed the primary or partial role of the Communal Agency for education in most North American communities which means they have assumed a central role in ensuring the educational objectives of their communities. As we prepare for a new school year and educational reality, we should not only plan to implement new technology but also new practices in planning and consultation to set and reach our communal educational objectives. 

Rabbi Scott T. Aaron, Ph.D., is the associate vice president for JUF Education at the Jewish United Fund of Chicago (JUF) and a past chair of the Association of Directors of Communal Agencies (ADCA). The opinions stated here are his own and not those of JUF or ADCA.