By Mark S. Young
[This is the first 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.]
Have you heard the news? More and more of our young learners today are enjoying the educational experience in their congregation or other part-time Jewish education settings. One might think Jewish education coupled with fun and enjoyment would only refer to experiences at summer camp, Israel, or youth group conventions. No longer.
We are used to referring to Jewish learning in these settings as “Hebrew school.” Certainly that’s the terminology familiar to boomers, Gen Xers, and early Millennials (as a 1981 baby I straddle Gen X and Millennial, so I can relate). Many in these generations judged their Hebrew school experiences as uninspiring or mediocre. We’ve read this in testimonials and in the 2013 Pew study, and we’ve seen evidence through a drop-off in synagogue life.
This piece, and those forthcoming in this series on eJewishPhilanthropy, aim to tell a new truth: inspiring things are happening in these Jewish education environments. Increasingly, congregational and part-time Jewish learning are making great strides in instilling both the knowledge and skills for the next generation of Jews to become active and confident in Jewish life and in building strong positive Jewish identity in our learners, who are better equipped to navigate today’s opportunities, issues, and challenges.
So what has changed? To start, the learning is more experiential, interactive, and reflective. It’s created and led by better-trained and better-supported directors and educators. It actively involves parents and other family members in the learning. In many cases, these experiences are more intentionally interwoven into the larger synagogue community.
Today’s Jewish education is providing compelling experiences that prepare learners and families far beyond the b’nei mitzvah. Instead, learners are prepared for a lifetime of engagement in Jewish community, ritual, and spiritual life. This includes, but is not limited to, participation in both social action and ongoing learning through teen and adult learning experiences in the congregational community and beyond.
I’ve been struck by the vivid signs at recent protests and demonstrations proclaiming, “This is what I was trained for in Hebrew school,” or “This is what Hebrew school prepared me for.” To me, this demonstrates a long-heralded success of teaching in these environments: Jews have learned that we must not take for granted one’s rights and privileges and we must stand up for what is right. This success will continue and only increase as we further strengthen the educational experiences in these settings.
Certainly, the enterprise of congregational and part-time Jewish learning remains subject to challenges. Educators have a limited amount of in-person time to teach and inspire learners. There are limited financial resources for teacher compensation and training. This sector of Jewish education also has a branding problem, even if it is not as mediocre as its old “Hebrew school” brand may infer.
In response, this coalition is leading a movement to nurture widespread transformation within this particular and vital arena of Jewish education. Together, we can overcome these challenges. We aim to directly address, for example, the branding issue, and reinforce that even more so today then in the past 70 years, the congregational and part-time Jewish learning enterprise has become an emergent soaring success – and we need to make this clear and known.
Don’t believe me? I encourage you to pay close attention to the upcoming series of articles by colleagues from across our sector in the weeks ahead. The Leadership Commons at The Davidson School of JTS has partnered with Shinui (a network of 10 central agencies for Jewish education), along with URJ, USCJ, RRC, HUC-JIR, Hebrew College, Gratz College, and JFNA, aiming to advance continued positive change in congregational and part-time Jewish education throughout North America.
In each article a member of or partner to the coalition will either further expand on the history of how we got here, or share specific examples, including learning models, stories, and perspectives, naming successes from their cities and congregations. They will also name challenges and convey how we are navigating through and overcoming them. We write with a spirit of optimism and excitement as we collaborate to further strengthen our already invigorating work.
It is important to note here that this emerging change is not yet widespread. As the writer William Gibson once stated, “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” We hope the work of the coalition can be a catalyst to better distribute this success, to further the nurturing of the exciting future we are beginning to see among communities across the continent.
More and more, learners today, in these settings, are becoming inspired through learning about the rights and responsibilities each of us has to make our Jewish community and world a better place. They learn to read and sing Shema and Oseh Shalom, understanding the call for unity and peace. They learn to pray or read in Hebrew, study Bible, or celebrate ritual, connecting the lessons as a call to take action, to participate, to be involved, and to help others in the spirit of tikkun olam, klal Yisrael, and b’tzelem elohim.
Inspiring things are happening … in congregational and part-time Jewish education.
Mark S. Young is the managing director of the Leadership Commons at The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS.