How Do You Build an Ecosystem of Jewish Education?

[ReFrame, an initiative of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, strengthens complementary schools, such as those housed in congregations, through the approach of experiential Jewish education. ReFrame asked a wide range of leaders in Jewish education to contribute to the initiative by addressing a series of questions related to the application of the experiential techniques which seem to serve so well in Jewish summer camps, Israel experiences, youth groups, and other popular settings associated with an experiential approach. The following article is one of the responses received. To learn more about ReFrame visit the website.]

by Jeffrey Lasday

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Parshischo said that every person should have two slips of paper in his pocket. On one should be written: “The world was created for me.” On the other should be written: “I am but dust and ashes.” The trick is to have the wisdom to know which slip of paper to read at the right time.[1]

An ecosystem is a community of living organisms (plants, animals and microbes) in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment (things like air, water and mineral soil), interacting as a system. These components are regarded as linked together.

Most ecosystems are open i.e., open to outside influences and surrounding ecosystems. A desert might be surrounded by farmland for instance, the two different ecosystems will affect one another. A closed ecosystem is an island or other isolated area. [2]

Wordle - LasdayThere is a reason why congregational schools were called supplementary schools in the past and have come to be known as complementary schools in the present. Something that is supplementary or complementary implies that something is incomplete on its own. The names beg the question; “Supplementary/Complementary to what?” The names indicate that the whole picture is bigger than just the one supplementary/complementary piece of the puzzle. Both words imply the need to work in partnership with other entities with shared visions and goals. Yet, despite these names, our complementary schools, for the most part, take on sole responsibility for the total Jewish education of their students. In order to build a robust ecosystem of Jewish education we need to let go of the misperception that a complementary school operating on its own can or should take full responsibility for a student’s Jewish education. We know that complementary schools work best when they complement additional forms of Jewish education (family, youth group, camp, Israel trips). The question is how can we move away from our existing incomplete programs and build an ecosystem of Jewish education that and consciously integrates the multiple Jewish educational opportunities available to our students into one complementary system?

Below are five steps toward building a robust ecosystem of Jewish education:

1. Systemic Alignment: Know Who You Are and Where You Want to Go

A critical first step toward building a robust ecosystem of Jewish education is establishing where you currently are and where you want to go. Lessons learned from the Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education (PELIE) sponsored Congregational School Improvement Initiative (CSI[2]),[3]demonstrate the importance of systemic alignment. CSI[2] is a three year school enhancement program that is designed to provide congregational schools with the opportunity to examine, enhance and/or redesign their education program. The process begins with an overall school assessment followed by organizational development of educational mission and vision. Once leadership have determined the program’s mission and vision, teacher training, curriculum development, and leadership development for school directors are then aligned with the school’s mission and vision. On-going school and student assessment provides feedback for adjusting the educational program and measurements for success. Once a program has internally defined and aligned itself it can seek complementary partners who possess similar missions and visions.

2. Focus On Our Students, Not On Our Institutions

A second step toward building an ecosystem for Jewish education is to consider all of the other possible Jewish educational opportunities available to our students and determine which programs will complement the school’s mission and vision. Though many educational programs speak about wanting to be student centered, at the end of the day we still tend to be institutional centered. We feel a need to have sole ownership over “our” students learning in “our” settings. We allow institutional ego, pride and politics get in the way of thinking about the whole child. This institutional thinking ends up limiting educational opportunities rather than expanding them.

For example, in Metropolitan Detroit we have a wonderful community sponsored Jewish camp[4] that serves approximately 1,300 campers each summer. Focusing on the 1,000 campers from Detroit, for 300 of these campers, the Jewish summer camp experience will be their only Jewish educational experience in a given year. We know these campers names, ages and contact information, yet we don’t (currently) have a system for providing them with other Jewish educational experiences during the year. On the other hand, the remaining 700 campers are all enrolled in our community’s day schools and congregational schools. Yet there is no connection between the Jewish educational experience that these campers receive during the summer at camp and the learning that takes place during the rest of the year. The camp site is only an hour drive from Metropolitan Detroit. Focusing as we do on our institutions we are bound by camp ground, buildings, time, season, academic year and limited resources. If we were to shift more of our focus onto our students and place less emphasis on pride of institution, then we could expand year round complementary education that follows students from school to camp to youth group and back again.[5]

3. Expand Our Perception of Community

A third step in building a Jewish education ecosystem is to broaden a sense of our community. Early on in my career as a Jewish educator I had the good fortune of working at two wonderful Young Judaea Camps. Though both of these camps were part of the same Zionist youth movement, followed the same educational philosophy and pursued the same peer led ideology, the way each camp operated on a day to day basis was very different. A clear example of their different operating cultures could be seen in how each camp built their staffing structures. During staff orientation, prior to the arrival of campers, it was the tradition at both camps to provide the merakzim (unit heads) time to meet and informally evaluate the madrichim (counselors) before assigning them to different chugim (units). At both camps the merakzim would then meet together with the camp director and go through a staff drafting process, with each merakez trying to recruit the strongest staff as possible. Up until this point both camps operated in the same manner. The difference came after the madrichim had been divided amongst the chugim. At one camp, the staff draft ended. Each merakez perceived that it was his/her responsibility to select the best staff for his/her own chug. These merakzim defined their chug as their community.

At the second camp, the staffing process however would then proceed to a second level. One of the merakzim, who had been able to draft a very strong staff would say to a second merakez, who had a perceived weaker staff, something like “My staff seems a little too strong compared with yours. Let’s make a trade so that your overall staff will be more effective”. And so the trading would continue until there was a consensus among all of the leadership that staff had been distributed in a way which was best for the whole camp. Here each merakez perceived that it was his/her responsibility to create the best staffing possibility for the good of the whole camp. These merakzim defined the whole camp as their community.

We need to ask ourselves, “How do we define our community? What are the boundaries and what is included in our ecosystem”?

4. Think Outside Our Own Four Walls

In my mind, this difference in perception of community and culture epitomizes the challenge in trying to create robust ecosystems in Jewish education. It comes down to perception, where leaders feel their responsibilities lay, and what is included (or not included) in the immediate system. When I was a classroom teacher, my community, my immediate ecosystem was my classroom. As an educational director my ecosystem was on my school. As a director of a central agency for Jewish education my sense of ecosystem expanded to include multiple schools, federation, JCC, and youth groups. For the most part existing Jewish complementary education systems tend to limit their ecosystem to all that happens within the walls of their own institution. We tend to operate as if we are in closed ecosystems, rather than within a larger open ecosystem. If we only look inward we face a shortage of limited resources. If we look outward we can discover potential partners which may surprise us. Examples of thinking beyond organizational walls can be found in New York City’s Jewish Education Project’s Lomed program and the Jewish Journey Project sponsored by two Manhattan JCCs and several congregations. When we change our perspective and look outward, broadening our concept of our community, our resources expand exponentially.

5. Think Network

The fifth step in building a robust Jewish education ecosystem is to build a network of like minded organizations. Building a robust ecosystem of Jewish education is bigger than what any one organization can accomplish on its own. Both networks and collective impact initiatives can be powerful resources for creating vibrant ecosystems. Jane Wei-Skillen and Sonia Marciano, describe the power behind networked nonprofits which work together toward a common cause[6]. They found that greater success is achieved when organizations share their load with like-minded long term partners, rather than working alone. (p.38). The success of these networked nonprofits suggests that organizations should focus less on growing themselves and more on cultivating their networks. (p.38). By mobilizing resources outside their immediate control, networks achieve their missions far more efficiently and sustainably than they could by working alone. (p.40). Effective networks enable organizations to focus on the services that they can do best and take advantage of other similarly mission driven services and resources.

Recently Jonathan Woocher has written about and championed both the importance of and power of networking and collective impact for Jewish education.[7], [8] Collective impact is defined as “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem. Collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants. … Successful examples of collective impact are addressing social issues that, like education, require many different players to change their behavior in order to solve a complex problem”[.9] Erie Together in Erie and Strive in Cincinnati are two examples of where collective impact has been used to bring together a large array of organizations, non-profits, government agencies and philanthropists to tackle educational challenges that were too big for any one organization to solve on its own. Collective impact is too complex a concept to fully describe in a brief thought paper however it is a BIG idea which can significantly impact our perception and reach of our Jewish education ecosystem and deserves further attention.

6. Start Small and Go Big

Building a robust ecosystem for Jewish education requires us to start first and foremost with our students. We need to understand who they are and what their needs are. From our students we need to think about our own individual Jewish education program, develop a clear sense of mission and vision that aligns with our curriculum, teacher development, and leadership development. Looking outward we need to think beyond the four walls of our own institutions, expand our boundaries and perception of our community to broadly include other potential like mission driven partners. Once we identify potential partners we then need to creatively develop networks that will enable us to expand our reach and impact.

In today’s age of multiple identities, social media, time demands and disappearing boundaries we need to create a Jewish education ecosystem that is as complex, flexible and multifaceted as our student’s lives. No one school, camp, or youth group is able to meet this challenge alone. They never have. Today’s ecosystem of Jewish education needs to begin with the individual and then broadly include as many networked Jewish education providers and Jewish education supporters as possible.

Jeffrey Lasday is the past Executive Director of the Collation for the Advancement of Jewish Education and currently serves as the Director of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s Alliance for Jewish Education.

1 Laura Geller, “Not More Than My Place; Not Less Than My Space”. Reform Judaism Online, Spring 2011.
2 Wikipedia
3 Started in Philadelphia as NESS and later adapted in San Francisco, Detroit and Pittsburgh
4 Tamarack Camps located in Ortonville, MI.
5 In August 2012 a ‘Think Tank on Experiential Jewish Education’ was sponsored by the Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education and convened at Camp Tamarack with formal and informal Jewish educators. Ideas from this think tank on how to create greater collaborations between schools, camp and youth groups are in the process of becoming realities.
6 Jane Wei-Skillen and Sonia Marciano, “The Networked Nonprofit”. Stanford Education Review, Spring 2008.
7 Jonathan Woocher, (9/8/2011): “Collective Impact”, Guest Blog – Builders of Jewish Education Site.
8 Jonathan Woocher (2012): “Reinventing Jewish Education for the 21st Century”, Journal of Jewish Education, 78:3, 182-226.
9 John Kania and Mark Kramer, “Collective Impact”, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011.