Jewish placemaking

Parents still believe in part-time Jewish education. Makom Community does too.

In Short

Jewish placemaking invites us to experiment with how we apply Jewish wisdom in connecting to our past and in growing into the humans we want to be in our world.

The release of From Census to Possibilities: Designing Pathways for Jewish Learners was a much needed voice in the public square of part-time Jewish education. Part-time Jewish education is an area of Jewish life that is often overlooked as extra or irreparable and a local problem. At Makom Community we are seeing the profound effects of intentional professional development that teaches communities how to design part-time Jewish education to honor each unique child and family. 

In founding Makom Community, I had the immense privilege to hear stories from about 150 people of when they had connected or failed to connect with the Jewish community throughout their lives. In having those conversations, I learned two significant things about this generation of parents:

1. Parents are overwhelmingly disconnected from institutional Jewish life and have real bumps and bruises around how that happened. They are not willing to have their children in an experience of Jewish education that will be negative for them. They are willing to choose no Jewish education over a negative one. 

2. Parents are working and need childcare between the end of the school day and work day. And they are zealously protective of their weekend family time and do not want to sacrifice that time for Jewish education. 

As a family-centered community that sees Jewish text as the heart of Jewish education, we are particularly grounded in the idea of kibud av v’em (honoring parents). Practically, that means that we create experiences where all parents are held up as interpreters of Jewish wisdom, regardless of the way they came to be a part of the Jewish community. Yes, I am saying that ALL our parents, whether they are Jewish or not, are a part of our Jewish community. And that is equally true whether a parent had a Jewish education they loved or hated or they didn’t grow up with a Jewish education at all. 

Makom Community was designed with these parent-centered ideas in mind, looking at the parents in our community as whole people, and asking, “What can we add to these families’ lives?” From our inception, Makom Community has been intentional about how we build community. Our unique pedagogy, Jewish placemaking, invites children and their families to engage with and challenge Jewish text while building the community we need. As a pedagogy, it shapes how we teach and learn and constantly connects us to why, including shaping our curriculum content.

Jewish placemaking invites us to experiment with how we apply Jewish wisdom in connecting to our past and in growing into the humans we want to be in our world.

For example, children studying the narrative of Yaakov and Eisav discussed that if the brothers had a place where they could go to calm down and then problem solve, things might have gone differently. And then they realized they needed that for their classroom, too. They wanted to have a place where they could re-regulate or meet with a friend to handle a conflict. Since this is their space, they raised that need for their class in Texploration, Makom’s time for daily text study, and then collaborated with their parents and teachers to make it happen. 

By taking this approach to a child’s Jewish education, we are adding value to a family’s life. We are recognizing the journey these kids and parents are on, beauty, challenges and all. While we journey together, we get to affirm the diverse people and families in our community. We are on a shared adventure to prioritize empathy and connection in a durable way and bring Jewish learning to our lives.

In order to make this kind of connection possible and increase our reach, Makom Community is researching and testing techniques to bring Jewish placemaking to a variety of spaces where Jewish education happens. So far, we have created tools to support educators in crafting multimodal learning experiences, building intentional relationships with children and parents, reading behavior as communication and an indicator of engagement, and learning and teaching Jewish text for empathy and agency. Because Jewish placemaking is a pedagogy, a way to teach and learn, it can easily be brought to other communities and curricula to deepen learning and reflect their unique mission/vision/values too. Supporting educational leadership and classroom teachers through professional development strengthens all our communities and the field of Jewish education as a whole. 

Teachers deserve to be seen for how important their role is. Honoring this profession means funding the same type of professional development opportunities for them as our senior leaders. By supporting teachers, we bring families into community in a long-term way that honors their journeys and is designed for their needs. We are grateful that The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and other local foundations have been supportive of this vision for deepening Jewish learning and communal connection with the tools of Jewish placemaking. Educators who have learned with us emerge with a greater connection to the field of Jewish education. Synagogues have seen increased teacher retention and increased student attendance, enrollment, and engagement. One congregation we worked with grew their enrollment by 50%. Another congregation went from 50% attendance to 95% attendance with consistent learner engagement. 

We see the hard work, dedication, and passion it takes to be a Jewish educator. And we see a significant role for our professional development in growing that dedication and passion with an array of new strategies. This year we have impacted over 1,000 children and their families with Makom Community’s professional development work, called Makom Making. We have a true solution that empowers and enhances our local communities to do this holy work well and deeply across the country. If you’re ready to bring your community into deeper engagement with Jewish wisdom through Jewish placemaking pedagogy, consider attending Planning for Joy: Jewish Placemaking Summer Conference or contact us about other ways Makom Making can support community building and strengthen Jewish Education in your home community. 

Beverly Socher-Lerner is the executive director and founder of Makom Community in Philadelphia, Penn. Beverly was a fellow at Yeshivat Hadar, received The Covenant Foundation Pomegranate Prize, was a Shalom Hartman Created Equal Fellow, and is now a participant in the Mandel Foundation Executive Leadership Program.

Terri Soifer is the director of strategy at Makom Community. She is a passionate and strategic relationship builder who works in the intersection of Jewish education and development.