sacred work

Jewish Education can restore and rejuvenate our world

David Bryfman’s abridged remarks from The Jewish Education Project’s Annual Benefit

Like many other organizations last March, The Jewish Education Project closed its office doors for a period of time. Jewish education in New York has survived two world wars, a Great Depression, 9-11, and now a pandemic.

Of course, Jewish education has survived a whole lot more than just these events, and I am humbly aware that I am addressing you here this evening not just as the CEO of The Jewish Education Project, but as part of a tradition of Jewish wisdom and learning that is thousands of years old.

Over the past year, some narratives from our tradition have been recalled for purposes of both reflection and inspiration.

Is this a moment in time equivalent to the destruction of the Second Temple, awaiting new visionary models of Jewish learning to emerge as they did in Yavneh?

Is the darkness we’re living through the modern-day equivalent to the cave from which Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai emerged after 13 years to be filled with despair and then with hope?

Are we here today as people who care deeply about Jewish education, because just like Queen Esther, it is precisely for this moment that we have been put in this place, at this time?

None of us could have imagined or predicted this past year. I am still haunted by those dark months in May and June, where when darkness fell, the only sounds you heard on the streets of New York were of ambulance sirens.

I said it then, and I repeat it again now: What our community needed at that time, and still needs today, is to stand up for the most vulnerable among us. I am in awe of the tremendous work that UJA-Federation of New York and social service agencies do to help Jews and non-Jew alike when they need it most.

But do you remember what also happened during those dark months? Amidst the silence, the illness, and the death….emerged the 7 o’clock clap. Where New Yorkers stood on their stoops and on their balconies to applaud the health workers, the first responders, those people that often-put other people’s lives before their own….

With this as the backdrop, I want to say a few words about the remarkable story that unfolded simultaneously at The Jewish Education Project. The day after the first Jewish day schools in Westchester closed their doors, we at The Jewish Education Project held our first crisis response webinar, equipping educators with what they needed to transition as smoothly as possible online.

And then we held the next webinar, and the next one, and the next one. In fact, between March and June, more than 7,000 educators participated in over 150 webinars or virtual meetings. That means The Jewish Education Project touched the lives of over 35,000 young people in those four months alone.

And Jewish educators jumped into action as well. As one Jewish day school principal told me – “we did not miss even one day of learning as we moved all of our school online overnight.” Early childhood centers moved their schools outdoors, and Jewish educators harnessed the power of zoom. It wasn’t always easy. And yet they persisted.

And then came the racial awakening of America with the murder of George Floyd. And again, Jewish educators, along with other Americans, rose to the occasion. Hundreds and then thousands of them came to The Jewish Education Project searching for support. It happened again after the events at the Capital building on January 6th.

Because of the trust educators have in our staff, when crisis comes, The Jewish Education Project is able to act quickly, and have tremendous impact.

But the pandemic also changed us. As the weeks turned into months, the novelty of an online Passover became a forerunner for the support we offered educators to run quality programs for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and then Hannukah, Yom Hashoah, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Purim, and now Pesach again.

We were not only able to react to crisis. We were able to help educators plan for the future. 

Our one-off webinars that met urgent needs transformed into longer series as we began to proactively help educators build towards a new tomorrow.

When I first began working at The Jewish Education Project, I told Bob Sherman, my predecessor and mentor, “In 5 years’ time 50% of our work will be online.” I was wrong…until I was right. But it wasn’t 50%, it was 100%, and no one predicted that it would be a pandemic being the catalyst for such change.

But that’s just it. For us at The Jewish Education Project, “we were built for this moment.” Our online infrastructure and digital know-how was already in place. And overnight, we transformed.

In the summer, we received generous funding from the GS Humane Group and the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF) – particularly from the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Maimonides Fund. And amidst the pandemic, after having to regrettably contract parts of our agency initially, we began to grow again. We built our Jewish Educator Portal, which now has close to 10,000 regular Jewish educators accessing top quality resources that we aggregate and curate from our partners and trusted colleagues.

And amidst all the uncertainty, we launched RootOne. The Marcus Foundation invested $20 million dollars in The Jewish Education Project to bring Jewish teenagers to Israel in the summer. And we know this initiative will change the course of these teens’ lives and help create a brighter Jewish future.

And that is what tonight is all about. Amidst all of the amazing things that we do, we should never forget the why. We do all of this sacred work to ensure that every Jewish child has the possibility to thrive as a Jew and in the world today. We do our work so that every Jewish child can become the best version of themselves.

We do this work so that every Jewish community can benefit from our wisdom and traditions. And we empower Jewish educators so that they can help our children make this world a better place. That is the value proposition of Jewish education today, and that’s why this year has been so remarkable. We proved, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that our agency elevates the entire field of Jewish education, raising all of the schools, synagogues, JCCs, summer camps, and youth groups with whom we work.

We ensure that when this pandemic ends, and one day it will, Jewish education will lead the way in restoring and rejuvenating the world in which we live.

Tonight is a time for me to thank those whom I represent. I am not sure when exactly it happened, but sometime during the pandemic I changed my email signature to David Bryfman, proud CEO of The Jewish Education Project. And it is with pride that I stand before all of you this evening – proud of my board, proud of my staff, and proud of the partners and supporters who continue to stand by us.

Thank you to all of the foundations that support us. We’re so grateful that UJA and these foundations understand the importance of investing in organizations like ours that nourish the spiritual and educational needs of our community – and ensure that we come out on the other side of this pandemic even stronger than before.

Tonight is our annual Benefit. We celebrate our educators, and the amazing work of The Jewish Education Project. In the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, “For Jews, education is not what we know. It’s who we are.”

And for our educators, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, wrote:

“Teachers open our eyes to the world. They give us curiosity and confidence. They teach us to ask questions. They connect us to our past and future … We have lots of heroes today, and they are often celebrities. They have their fifteen minutes of fame, and they go. But the influence of good teachers stays with us. They are the people who really shape our life.”

As we look toward the future, may we continue working together to build Jewish community and life where all of our youth and families truly thrive.

David Bryfman is CEO of The Jewish Education Project.