Ready to Experiment with Your Congregation’s Educational Program? Open The Toolbox!

toolboxBy Rob Weinberg

I love building furniture. When I open my toolbox, I know I’ll find just the right tool for the challenge before me, the implement that will make an otherwise difficult task just flow. And I find joy as I apply the wisdom that’s channeled through the tools and methods I’ve inherited and a beautiful piece of furniture grows before my eyes. In my day job, I help synagogue leaders to re-imagine their congregations’ approaches to Jewish learning for children, families, and adults alike – to build these approaches anew. Now there’s a Toolbox for that, too.

In a bid to encourage and equip as many congregations as possible to innovate and transform their approach to Jewish learning, the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE) is launching The Toolbox: Resources to Experiment in Congregational Education. The Toolbox makes available to you and your team a vast collection of resources from 24 years of the ECE’s work in the field of education-based synagogue transformation. These resources will make easier the challenging task of changing en educational approach, applying the tools and methods of those who have gone before.

Our goal in sharing this rich collection of resources is simple: we are eager to empower as many congregations as possible to experiment and innovate in congregational education … again and again and again. Some congregations like to follow a deliberative visioning and planning process; if you are from one of those you’ll find fully developed Guidebooks with meeting plans, facilitation guides, handouts, text study guides, and more that will equip you to go through such a process with a collaborative task force of professional and lay leaders working together.

Other congregations don’t have an appetite for process; they want to find an intriguing educational design or pedagogical idea from elsewhere, adapt it, and try it out for a year with a small group of learners. If yours is one of those congregations, you’ll find sample model descriptions, vision statements, and change management tips in the “What to Change” section of website, to inspire and spark creativity to try something new. Through hands on trial and learning, these congregations will see what works, adapting it further to their needs, goals, and culture. Over time, we hope, they will modify and grow their initial experiments to become progressively more systemic. Our experience shows that both paths can lead to transformative results.

Even if you are in the earliest, exploratory stages of this change process – perhaps even unsure what exactly this means – you’ll find meeting guides to help you get a taste of conversation about change and whet the appetite of congregants. You’ll find information that details how to assemble a “change” team and who should be on it. In the “Why Change” section you’ll find speeches and congregational conversation guides to help you build the case for change. In the “How to Change” section you’ll find exercises and protocols to look inward, look outward, and look forward in a deliberative planning process.

We designed The Toolbox to be as accessible and relevant for as many congregations as possible, regardless of your knowledge about this process and whether or not you have implemented anything like it before. Whatever the approach, if your congregation believes it’s time to try a new approach to educating the children and families in your community, please take full advantage of The Toolbox’s resources; use them wisely and with care.

Why are we launching The Toolbox now? Back in 1992, when Dr. Isa Aron and Professor Sara Lee founded the ECE as an action and analysis project of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC-JIR, there was no other educational experimentation game in town. Today congregations have many opportunities to find support for their efforts at educational transformation – whether through a Union for Reform Judaism Community of Practice, ReFrame at the Jewish Theological Seminary, through local opportunities like LeV at Jewish Learning Venture in Philadelphia, or the Synagogue School Collaboration Network in Chicago, or through private consultation.

After years of working directly with congregations and with organizational partners (such as The Jewish Education Project in New York, Jewish Learning Connections at Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, central agencies in Kansas City, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the former Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning in Washington, DC), we are grateful that we are now in a position to share these materials widely.

My fervent hope is that, by making all of these tools and resources available in The Toolbox, we will catalyze a new explosion of experimentation, an influx of innovation, and a chain of change. Let us continue to share these experiences and learn together.

Dr. Rob Weinberg serves, since 2001, as Director of the Experiment in Congregational Education, an initiative of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC-JIR. Since 1992 the ECE has led national projects and local partnerships to create Congregations of Learners, Self-Renewing Congregations, and re-imagined models of congregational education. The ECE is grateful for generous support from foundations, federations, and local partner agencies.