Re-Inventing Jewish Education: Reconfiguring a Fractured Landscape

by Adam Gaynor

For several weeks I have followed with fascination the debate over Jonathan Woocher’s recent article, “Reinventing Jewish Education.” Jonathan outlines several important paradigm shifts that need to occur in order to re-focus and strengthen the field. In particular, Jonathan advocates a holistic, learner-centered approach. His prescient comments were reinforced for me on the subway last week…

I ran into a friend on the platform who mentioned that despite his attachment to his local synagogue, he opted to pull his kids out of supplementary school. Instead, he banded together with two other families, hired a young rabbinical student, and set up weekly, intimate, in-depth, classes. His family craved deeper educational engagement – which his model could achieve – and at a more affordable price-tag. Nevertheless, he continues to maintain his synagogue membership and engages with the institution in other ways.

Respondents to Jonathan’s article argued over the pros and cons of adopting a learner-centered approach, reflected in this anecdote, but ignored the other half of Jonathan’s argument: no matter how innovative the philosophy, pedagogy, or practice of Jewish education, no single institution can serve the whole person, and the fractured landscape of Jewish organizations will continue to stymie real change.


Because there are several enduring realities that constrain the field:

  • Too many organizations compete for too few dollars
  • Increasingly, these dollars are disproportionately wielded by powerful foundations
  • Many of the youngest and most innovative organizations often rise and fall on the decision of a single funder
  • Many of the most established organizations have great, fixed facilities, but rapidly changing and geographically mobile constituencies
  • Cultural trends shift rapidly but organizations are resistant to change and slow to catch-up

Everybody in the field recognizes these challenges, but few convene the kinds of discussions that confront these challenges with practical solutions and shared resources. For example, what would it look like if a large institution with great facilities but a dwindling membership opened its doors to several small, cutting-edge, program providers that lacked infrastructure?

In short, when the environment is this tough, organizations need to see themselves as part of a larger, integrated communal structure. They need to focus on both vision and capacity. They need to be less proprietary about their constituents and need to collaborate with others on community needs-assessments, long-term strategic visioning exercises, intelligent financial and business planning, partnerships that reduce overhead, and the re-alignment of “catchment areas.”

Here’s a concrete example. Last week, The Jewish Education Project (formerly the New York Bureau of Jewish Education) convened a meeting of Jewish educators from Westchester County to consider what a community-wide approach to teen education would look like if Federation, Jewish Community Centers, youth groups, upstart organizations, and others planned collaboratively. The underlying question was whether organizations could share overhead, staff, space, information and intellectual capital to create a web of exciting experiences for teens and their families. The outcome remains to be seen, but congratulations to the convener and to those intrepid organizations that decided to participate.

When I reflect on my friend’s story from our subway ride the other day, I recognize that his synagogue could have responded in one of several ways: 1) pleasure that one of its students opted for a more intensive Jewish education than what it could reasonably offer, 2) a consideration of how it could work with other organizations or Jewish educators, such as the rabbinical student, to offer a more comprehensive menu of educational options, or 3) anger over the lost revenue and pupil. The synagogue opted for the latter approach. I wonder how long my friend will continue to pay dues.

Adam Gaynor is a Consultant with The Whelan Group, a 30-year old New York-based firm providing planning and advisory services to non-profits and foundations nationally. Adam is also a doctoral student in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU.