JESNA’S Pick for the Best in Jewish Education of the Decade
by Jonathan Woocher
The dawn of a new decade has brought with it a flurry of retrospectives assessing the first ten years of the 21st century. Clearly, there’s been much to cause discouragement, anxiety, and concern. But, as we at JESNA look back on the past decade in Jewish education, we also find much to celebrate. In fact, it’s been a pretty good decade for Jewish learning, not without its challenges and disappointments, but one marked by many exciting developments, new ideas, and promising directions.
So, in the spirit of the new decade, with perhaps a touch of the Oscars thrown in, here is our JESNA “Top Ten” list of achievements, developments, ideas, and trends in Jewish education worthy of note and gratification (in no special order). And, since we’re Jewish, we can’t resist giving you a bargain, so we’ve thrown in an 11th just for good measure.
Please feel free to share your own list and let us know what you think of ours. [contact Rika Levin at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts]
- Taglit-Birthright Israel – Taglit-Birthright Israel has demonstrated that big ideas can generate big successes: 200,000+ young people encountering Israel for the first time in an experience that for many has been life changing. The “home run” that all new program initiatives seek to emulate.
- Funding Partnerships to transform critical sectors of Jewish education – Beginning with the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), the decade saw the coming to the fore of funder-driven initiatives to bring new ideas and energy to arenas such as day school, early childhood education, complementary education, camps, and Jewish innovation.
- Consumer-centric education – This is the age of choice in Jewish education: individuals and families choosing among multiple options to find the most meaningful and appropriate educational experiences. This imposes new demands on our institutional infra-structure to place education’s “consumers” at the center of their thinking and to put in place concrete mechanisms, like the Los Angeles BJE’s Jewish Education Concierges, to assist and guide these consumers in making choices that work for them.
- The rise of the innovation sector – The past decade has seen an explosion of innovative people, projects, and organizations creating new modes and venues for Jewish learning and engagement. Equally important, endeavors like Bikkurim: An Incubator for New Jewish Ideas and a growing number of others have emerged to nurture and support this innovation sector.
- Congregational educational change initiatives – It’s definitely not your father’s (or mother’s) Hebrew school any longer, as more than a dozen national, regional, and local initiatives involving hundreds of synagogues collectively have begun to transform the landscape of supplementary education, bringing new vision, energy, and leadership to an often disparaged arena.
- The revitalization of Jewish camps – Cognoscenti have long recognized the unique power of Jewish camps to nurture lifelong Jewish engagement. In the past decade this power was rediscovered, and new investment, spearheaded by organizations like the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Grinspoon and Avi Chai Foundations, has elevated the prominence and performance of Jewish camps and spurred growth and innovation across the field.
- Online Jewish learning – Technology is transforming how we work, play, communicate, and learn, and Jewish learning is no exception. From MyJewishLearning.com to Twitter, the technological revolution is coming to Jewish education, empowering learners, challenging teachers, putting new resources at our finger tips, connecting far-flung classrooms, and bridging time and space.
- PJ Library – Educators have long known that the family is our first and most powerful teacher. With the simple idea of giving Jewish families books to read to young children at bedtime, The Grinspoon Foundation‘s PJ Library program has brought a seminal Jewish experience into tens of thousands of Jewish homes and spurred communities to invent new programs to help these families continue their Jewish journeys.
- Jewish service learning – Today’s young people want to be “hands on” when it comes to repairing the world. Jewish service learning programs for teens and young adults have blossomed to build the bridge between Jewish activism and Jewish education. AJWS, Avodah: the Jewish Service Corps, Panim, Jewish Funds for Justice, Areyvut, Teva Learning Center and a host of others are helping young people to learn and apply Jewish values to make a better world.
- “Public Space” Jewish education – If some Jews are reluctant to come to Jewish institutions, why can’t we bring Jewish experiences to them? That’s the premise behind a growing number of initiatives that take Jewish learning and experiences to where Jews are, whether it’s the aisles of supermarkets, the lounges of bookstores, the board rooms of corporations, or the campuses of public and private high schools.
- A focus on outcomes – In an era of limited resources, it’s vital to make sure that all of our educational investments are as effective as they can be. But to do so, we need to look beyond the programs to the learners themselves and to be clear about the outcomes we seek and the results we’re obtaining. Clarifying outcomes and developing measures to assess them is enabling us to make better programs and, we may hope, laying the groundwork for even greater investment in quality Jewish education.
Jonathan Woocher is Chief Ideas Officer at JESNA and Director of its Lippman Kanfer Institute, an action-oriented think tank for innovation in Jewish learning and engagement.