Growing Jewish Education in Challenging Times: Seizing the Opportunities

by Jonathan Woocher

The 20th century Jewish sage Stan Lee taught us that with great power comes great responsibility. It is equally true, I believe, that with great challenge comes great opportunity.

This is a moment of enormous opportunity for Jewish education. Yes, there are real challenges out there (we’ll get to those), but we have never been in a better position to create a panoply of opportunities for Jewish learning that are engaging, inspiring, and impactful, even – and perhaps especially – for those who have been disappointed by or suspicious of what they perceive “Jewish education” to have been in the past.

Reading through the series of articles that have comprised the Roundtable on Growing Jewish Education, I am struck first by the sense of possibility they evoke and the recurring themes that contribute to this vision of success. When we provide opportunities to learn that respond to the real needs and aspirations of learners, that are serious and of high quality, and that engage learners as co-creators of their experiences, Jewish education “works,” and works extremely well.

These learning opportunities can take a multitude of forms. They can happen within conventional institutions or in alternative settings – in fact, they need to happen in a wide variety of times and places, and to use an array of media and techniques. Clearly, though, powerful Jewish educational experiences are more than just possible; they exist – we have examples of such experiences to point to, and we can imagine many more such examples.

But, we don’t have nearly enough of these opportunities today, and that’s the challenge.

The question we should be asking is: What do we need to do to be able to guarantee every Jew, child or adult, and perhaps too those not Jewish, but who wish to learn alongside us, access to Jewish educational experiences that will excite them about learning, that will enrich their lives, and that will connect them in emotionally and spiritually fulfilling ways to other individuals, to communities of fellow learners, and to larger purposes that give their lives meaning and substance?

The essays that have been part of this series offer a wide variety of responses to this question (I’d urge you, in fact, to go back and re-read them). Some of the responses focus on ways we can tackle the very real issue of affordability, especially of the most intensive forms of Jewish education. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers on this score. Quality Jewish education, especially in intensive settings, is expensive to produce. And since the revenues needed to pay that cost come primarily in the form of voluntary contributions (whether as tuition or gifts) from Jews themselves, the pressure on all those involved in the transactions – providers, consumers, and supporters – are enormous, especially when economic times are difficult for many. As several of the submissions to the Roundtable argue, meeting the challenge of financing Jewish education will require both creative thinking about potential funding sources and hard work to encourage maximal support from those in a position to provide it. Some suggested approaches, such as increased governmental funding, are admittedly controversial, and, overall, there is no consensus in the Jewish community today on how to balance all of the variables in the complex equation of quality, accessibility, and affordability that we are trying to solve.

But even more important, I would argue, than dealing with financial issues is dealing with the educational challenges that grow from the by and large happy condition of North American Jews in the 21st century. The challenge is not about how to forestall or reverse assimilation. That is a language and a conceptual framework long outdated. The challenge is about how to make Jewish ideals, texts, traditions, history, and community valued and operative resources in the lives of today’s Jews. To do so, we will have to demonstrate that Judaism, Jewish culture, and Jewish community can help Jews of many different types and at many different life stages find what all humans seek: meaning and purpose, connectedness, and a sense of empowerment and mastery in the arenas of living that matter to them.

I believe, as do, I think, every one of the contributors to this Roundtable, that Judaism and Jewish culture have this capacity – that they can help us be better, more fulfilled, more purposeful human beings. But, the Jewish education that many of us have known, a Jewish education by and large created in and for another era characterized by different priorities and purposes, is not adequate to fulfill this potential and to seize the opportunities that we face today.

This is the hard truth we need to face and that many of the contributors to the Roundtable respond to by offering new visions of possibility that require innovation and change both in how we do Jewish education and in how we deliver it. By “doing” Jewish education, I mean how we carry out the learning / teaching process. As many of the contributors remind us, learning today is increasingly self-initiated, focused on learners’ lives, needs and interests, linked to experiences, independent of specific settings, and directed toward meaning-making. This does not obviate the impact of good teaching or the importance of rich, high quality content. In fact, these are even more vital in an age where learning is a matter of choice, not an expression of obligation. But, understanding that Jewish education must be personally relevant, a tool for individual and collective empowerment, and “owned” by the learner, as Elie Kaunfer and Beth Cousens insightfully argue, recasts how we think about curriculum, the roles of teachers, the centrality of relationships, and other key components of the educational process – and not just for young adults. We need entrepreneurial ventures that open up new venues and modalities for Jewish learning. And, we need the intrapreneurial energy that Maya Bernstein urges, and that initiatives like JECEI, the Experiment in Congregational Education, and many others embody, in order to redesign educational programs for children and families of all ages in traditional settings to make them more imaginative, engaging, inspiring, and empowering.

Change at the level of practice alone, however, will not be enough. We also need to change the delivery system as a whole, i.e., how our educational structures operate and especially the relationships (or lack thereof) among them. The Jewish education “system” today is still overwhelmingly “siloed.” Schools, camps, synagogues, alternative settings, and new modes of delivery like technology provide a rich landscape of educational opportunities. But, they operate by and large alongside one another, not in a coordinated fashion. We need a more systemic approach that will maximize the educational effectiveness of individual modes and settings, expand the variety of experiences available (to appeal to an increasingly diverse population of prospective learners), and enhance their accessibility to individuals and families who are often not sure where and how to find the educational opportunities most suitable for them.

Most Jewish education today remains “provider,” rather than “consumer” centered, and the price we pay is that growing numbers of Jews opt out of the system altogether or “settle” for experiences that are less than fully satisfying. In his contribution to this series, Robert Lichtman provides a glimpse of an alternative, an educational system in which collaboration is the norm, not the exception, and synergies and smooth handoffs mark the transition of learners through the life cycle, rather than awkward pauses and dropouts. Ending the exaggerated self-reliance and territorialism that still mark too much of how Jewish educational institutions behave will not only make Jewish education better; it will open up possibilities for achieving economies through specialization and cost-sharing that could help address some of the financial challenges facing the domain as well.

Broad-scale change is never easy, but it’s a lot easier when we are building on changes already underway and on incisive ideas that are beginning to gain traction. The Roundtable provides ample evidence that such changes are taking place and that there is no shortage of ideas for how to extend and accelerate the momentum for change. This is the opportunity calling us today. We can grow Jewish education, both in terms of the numbers of participants and the quality, depth, and impact of the learning taking place, even in challenging times. We have the opportunity; we have the power; and we have the responsibility. All that remains is to do it.

Jonathan Woocher is Chief Ideas Officer of JESNA.

This post is from the series Growing Jewish Education in Challenging Times.