Jewish Educational Leaders: Optimists, Pessimists, Realists? Or all of the Above?

Image by Manfred Antranias Zimmer from Pixabay

By David Bryfman

Many times, I have stood in front of a room of stakeholders in Jewish education and asked them whether they considered themselves to be optimists or pessimists?

I would then continue, “Would the pessimists please leave the room? The last thing that we need in Jewish education are people who believe that the future is not bright. Our role is to ensure that all students reach their utmost potential and it is our sacred duty to make this world a better place.”

The centrality of optimism in education and Jewish education is not a new one – but it is certainly being tested right now.

When schools finished in June, almost immediately our collective eyes turned toward the start of the 2021 academic year. It didn’t take too long before the plausible scenarios for educational settings became apparent.

1.      We would return to in-person learning in the Fall.

2.      We would not return to in-person learning in the Fall.

3.      We would return to in-person learning in the Fall, and then we would have to go back online thereafter – either because of a second wave of the pandemic, or a smaller exposure within a classroom or school.

Now, months later, and with the academic year underway (or about to be underway in some areas) all three of these over-simplified scenarios remain plausible and possible. But it’s important to understand what drove, and continues to drive, people to think about these scenarios in certain ways. This thinking tells us a lot about Jewish educators and the immense challenges they encounter. It is inaccurate to presume, for example, that the optimists gravitated to the first scenario, the pessimists to the second, and the flip-floppers to the third.

Even though most focus has centered around scenarios 1 and 2, it is actually scenario 3 that everyone is planning for most but speaking publicly about least. In reality, this is the scenario that most people should plan for and talk about openly.

Scenarios 1 and 2 offer definitive answers. They provide solutions. They allow teachers to communicate to students and parents what lies ahead and to plan for the future. Scenario 3 on the other hand lacks certainty and offers little direction when these are precisely what people need now more than ever. Scenario 3 is also the costliest of the three. It requires schools to be totally outfitted with appropriate health and safety requirements, and simultaneously be fully equipped for online learning. Educators of course, to some degree, have to plan different educational experiences for in-person versus online settings. There are good reasons as to why it is the least desirable scenario. But education leaders and educators must account for it. And if it doesn’t eventuate – that is a good thing.

Among education leaders themselves, there is an incredible amount of diversity in their location, the building they inhabit, and the grounds that they may or may not have at their disposal. All of these different factors lead to more “decision points” that impact leaders’ approach to and delivery of education at this unique time. For example, decisions for some on where and how learning occurs in part will be made based on how learners arrive and depart – do they take public or private transport, is carpool the favored modality, or are they within walking distance? Sometimes decisions will be taken out of leaders’ hands; made or not made by local, state or federal regulations.

Finally, when we think about the decisions now in front of Jewish educational leaders, also remember that some operate in settings where attendance is compulsory – children of a certain age must attend a school – or be homeschooled. Some Jewish early childhood centers operate as full-time loci of education, while other offerings for Jewish children are after-school programs. And perhaps we ought to remind ourselves that much of Jewish education is completely voluntary. Collectively, more Jewish youth and young adults attend congregational schools, JCC programs, teen youth organizations, university programs, young adult programming, Israel and other travel experiences etc. than formal institutions of Jewish learning.

The academic year is upon us, and there are many twists and turns still to unfold. Whether it is scenario 1, 2, or 3 that eventuates, one thing remains constant among all Jewish educators with whom I talk: They will all publicly speak with confidence about their ability and genuine excitement to engage learners. Quietly they will all plan for the most challenging of educational scenarios. And first and foremost in their minds will always be the health – physical and mental – of their learners. I am reminded of the many conversations I have had with summer camp directors. Ask any of them what they hope for most every summer, and it is the profound hope that they will return every camper safely and in good health to their families.

Through all of this, one thing still rings true – it did in March, and it does in August. While the focus of many might come down to whether one is or is not in a building, not one Jewish educator that I know stopped trying to provide as high-quality a Jewish education as possible. The building or the cloud made little difference to the tenacity and, yes, the optimism of Jewish educators across this country and the globe.

Maybe one of the lessons from this pandemic is that educators, and specifically Jewish educators, are more resilient than many gave them credit for. In many ways they’ve proven themselves to be the backbone of any great community. They did not skip a beat when the pandemic landed, and it is they who will play a critical role in revitalizing our community when we come out of this on the other side.

David Bryfman is CEO of the Jewish Education Project. He hosts the livecast Adapting: The Future of Jewish Education