By Sara Shapiro-Plevan

Learning takes place not in isolation, but in social relationship. While sometimes it may seem easier for us to sit alone, turn off Facebook and our phones and focus on getting work done, our best learning is done in relationship with others, in whatever context nourishes us. As early as 1900, John Dewey helped us recognize that it is in interaction with others that our best, our deepest and our most meaningful learning takes place. Dewey understood relationship as the space in which learning takes root, with the purpose of integrating learning and life, support learners to live in relationship with the world, and with the people who make up our community.


This month, JEDLAB, a community that cares passionately about Jewish learning and Jewish education, will celebrate a milestone, almost 120 years after John Dewey shared these insights into relationships. JEDLAB, born as JDSMediaLab more than five years ago, will reach an astounding 10,000 members. We celebrate these 10,000, but what we celebrate is not the number. We celebrate the powerful impact of this many people gathering together, to be present with each other and to live and learn in relationship. We celebrate the power of this network, the interconnectedness that is JEDLAB, and the relationships that make it possible.

Celebrating Birth,  …. and Change

Ken Gordon and Yechiel Hoffman shared their dreams for this kind of space at a North American Jewish Day School Conference in 2013, where they created JEDLAB. In their unique friendship, they modeled a commitment to bringing people together to learn and connect across denomination, organization, geography, role, and domain, and this is truly what JEDLAB has become. This emergent community was gifted with the partnership of tens, then hundreds, and thousands of other eager partners, who jumped in to embrace our network’s core values. JEDLAB adapted network principles to strip away hierarchy, to grow together, to take risks in a virtual space to experiment and challenge ourselves in ways that we could not in isolation. While JEDLAB exists on Facebook, it exists in endless other spaces, on phone calls and by Zoom and Google Hangout, in coffee shops and conference rooms, wherever people who are passionate about Jewish learning come together. We are connected in whatever way we choose, by the power of our ideas and our desire to learn, the eagerness to improve our practice or the need to acquire new skills to support our work: JEDLAB is powered by our people.

At first, JEDLAB was animated by the exchange of ideas, a space for the discussion of lofty visions of Jewish education, grounded in theory, steeped in learning and research. Sharing and discussion of articles, of books, of educational theories moved our dialogue forward. Anyone involved in JEDLAB in that first year would agree it was a heady time, one in which we could have spent hours online and by phone, or having coffees, gathering over texts and in conversation, arguing and debating the merits of a piece of research and its application. As JEDLAB grew, our needs as a community shifted. Our focus shifted to resources, using our human capital to actively resource each other, to take the incredible potential that lives within each one of us and translate it into a network that offers concrete, practical support. This network today has extraordinary breadth and depth, representing not just educators of all stripes but clergy, students, parents, funders and lay leaders. We truly are JEDLAB: a Jewish education laboratory, where ideas about Jewish learning and living come to be tested and exchanged, and where we engage with partners in the act of experimentation and innovation. We’re collaborating on the design of learning, lesson plans and evaluations, offering response materials, support and resources when tragedies strike, and testing out big ideas and language when we feel challenged or in response to our own unique struggles before we take them back to our colleagues and communities.

Imagining Our Power Differently

In some ways, JEDLAB has become the water cooler for our corner of the Jewish world. We are the space where relationships grow and ideas are exchanged. We are also the space where the dynamics of power which have held sway in the Jewish community for generations are shifted and upended. JEDLAB is a home for self-made leaders who step forward and act, with a generosity of spirit and the capacity to organize. In JEDLAB, leadership is not just for those at the top of the org chart. It’s not for people who have an easy time rising to the top. It’s for people who get stuff done. JEDLAB embraces being present for others, expressed by asking thoughtful questions and offering our best selves in authentic response. In this way, we define our own power, and we shift away from the structures of power that have led our communities and organizations in years past. What matters in our community is not status or title. Respect for others and for ideas, a willingness to listen, real authenticity and generosity to others matter far more: we earn our reputations and our value through our capacity to be present for and in relationship with others. As we gather around our water cooler, let’s make this kind of power pervasive and let it drift back into our offices and our classrooms, back into our organizations and into our professional identities. We can use our power to connect instead of control, to make the kind of change that will have a transformative impact on our learners and our institutions.

The Power of Relationship

One hallmark of Jewish professional life is our relative isolation. We are teachers behind closed doors, educators alone in our offices, counselors and camp staff disconnected between September and May, and individuals in smaller Jewish communities serving as the sole Jewish professional. Even those of us who work in community may feel a sense of isolation. It is our networks – both our professional, thoughtfully organized networks and our informal networks – that offer us a chance to be in relationship with each other. This is one reason that JEDLAB is successful, even as its shape and function have shifted over the years. Social learning, recognizing that we as social animals learn best in relationships, wasn’t something that was fully recognized as a field until as recently as the 1970’s, with the research of Albert Bandura. We began to know then, as we know now, that when we learn by observing others, by listening to others, watching their behavior and even modeling our own after theirs, by reading or looking at their words and ideas – even by hanging out in their Facebook groups and simply learning by lurking – that we can use what we learn as a guide for our own action. We grow simply by being present with others. We can reduce our own isolation by inviting others in, by joining, and by being present. We can learn by being in the mix, by being connected to others who also might be learning, too.

In 2015, Ken Gordon articulated this as his first essential principle by which JEDLAB lives: “relationships come first.” He modeled this by engaging in dialogue, sharing a favorite book, and making a connection. Relationships are at the fore of our community, and we are reminded of how and why we must always be present in each other’s lives, for both mundane reasons as well as for elevated ones.

How Do These Relationships Matter?

A few weeks ago at Kiddush lunch at shul on Shabbat, I was talking with Lisa Gersten, Chief of External Relations at Moving Traditions. She shared a story of a staff meeting at which another colleague, Sarah Fox (National Program Manager) told this story about observing the power of JEDLAB.

“I was really excited to see (in the JEDLAB Facebook group) a rabbi in Denver recommend the Moving Traditions b’nai mitzvah program to an educator who was asking JEDLAB about ideas for a 6th grade parent/child b’nai mitzvah program. Another educator in Boston chimed in that she too was part of the Moving Traditions b’nai mitzvah program roll out and thought that the curriculum was good. The educator who originally asked for recommendations then responded that she had enjoyed Moving Traditions @13 podcasts and would be interested in learning more about Moving Traditions b’nai mitzvah program. Another educator then went into detail about a specific activity that she had done from the Moving Traditions b’nai mitzvah program that really got parents and children talking. It was really thrilling to see our work come alive on JEDLAB.”

None of this involved a staff person taking leadership – power shifted away from traditional sources of information to the actual users and holders of knowledge in the field. Relationships themselves conveyed knowledge from one person on one side of the country to another, as recommendations and ideas for programs were shared, ideas diffused and people resourced. This may not be a new way of working in other professional communities, but it’s new and exciting for many of us in the Jewish educational world. This vignette offers us a tiny glimpse into the ways in which wisdom resides inside the group of professionals and individuals who are our “users,” who constitute an authentic community of practitioners. And that story got to me through the beautiful word of mouth that is so often the way we hear of the power of JEDLAB, through the relationships that animate our network.

What We Know: Success

As JEDLAB reaches #JEDLAB10000K, we don’t have concrete data on how people actually interact, what kinds of relationships they have, what flows through these relationships, how people change as a result of these interactions and the metrics that might tell us what their relationships – and the learning that results – look like. That’s a social network analysis for another time. What we do have are the anecdotal stories of collaborations, learning partnerships for their own sake and for the sake of professional growth, job changes eased and supported, resources requested and exchanged, materials collaboratively designed, moments of celebration shared, moments of trauma collectively mourned, and relationships established and strengthened. If we use these metrics, and we pause to look at the relationships that have been seeded, cultivated and grown within our network, we know that JEDLAB at 10,000 is an extraordinary success. Our gratitude to each of you who have worked to build it, engaged in the building of relationships that make JEDLAB strong, and shifted the power that resides in our community toward the connection that makes learning possible.

Sara Shapiro-Plevan, a moderator and facilitator of JEDLAB, is the founder of Rimonim Consulting and a doctoral candidate in the Davidson School at JTS. Sara’s work is all about relationships. Her essential focus: understanding the way relationships influence the ability to improve our practice, understand our work, and be present with others. Sara consults primarily with Jewish organizations, schools, congregations, and foundations to support their development of a networked, collaborative culture, and support the shift away from hierarchy to connected, relational community. She is a partner in The Gender Equity in Hiring in the Jewish Community Project, which is working to remove gender bias from hiring processes in Jewish organizational life in order to help women rise to positions of leadership. Sara lives in Manhattan with her husband and son, who both love sports and have taught her how to use sports analogies in her work.