Reflecting and Celebrating:
Conversations on Jewish Education
By Erica Brown
Setting out on a new venture in Jewish education, I was interested in the hard-earned wisdom of notable professionals in and around the field. As part of the work of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, we seek to bring academics and practitioners into conversation on the educational issues that matter most. To do this well, it’s critical to identify today’s educational landscape. To that end, I spent nearly a year interviewing professionals in and around the universe of Jewish education, formally and informally. I had initially intended to save the formal responses in a personal collection to direct my own work. But there was too much richness and depth to keep the responses to myself. While the conversations continue, clear patterns emerged.
What did these experts see the as the current contributions of Jewish education, particularly day school education, and could they point to successes? What are the most pressing leadership challenges today and the viable initiatives tackling these problems? What skill sets do they believe are most important to the work, and what kind of lay support is most helpful in achieving their goals? Although I sent a set of questions in advance, I allowed the conversation to flow freely. Many respondents immediately problematized the subject. I gently nudged them into focusing on what is working. It is with these successes that we begin.
Quotation marks indicate direct quotes from respondents. Those I spoke with are listed in the aggregate at the article’s conclusion. The terms thought-leader, expert, authority, senior professional/educator and academic are used co-terminously, since the academics cited here function in many of these capacities. For the sake of brevity and anonymity, the most salient and repeated observations are distilled into 18 main points supported by verbatim quotes – a chai guideline, so to speak – to inform a communal agenda.
1.We are really good at strengthening belonging and building community. The commitment to creating community is working. “We’re not building community perfectly, and we’re not doing it for everyone, but we are still doing it.” We have a greater understanding of the dynamics of belonging and inclusion and are more sensitive to those who feel on the margins, with one caveat: “If we do a great job of creating community, and we make some people feel very connected and welcome, but we don’t do it for all, then we are powerfully and painfully excluding some.” Communities are more porous today. The big tent may have more room, but we need to be friendlier to get people who feel excluded into that tent.
2. More people are accessing Jewish education in more ways than ever before. “I think the depth of Jewish learning among young people has expanded,” observed one respondent. We’ve also created more opportunities and expectations around learning. “Gap year programs and deep immersion in learning is standard in some communities.” Others point to inclusion within the learning process: “We’ve made strides across the board in strengthening progressive education, like differentiated learning. Across the sectors, everyone understands that’s a goal. Inclusion is a principle. Learning styles are well-known, even if the implementation required isn’t always as good.” This access is not only a change in where people learn and how but who is accessing Jewish education: “There seems to be a lot of talk and action around outreach, meaning Jewish education for the unaffiliated or those on the margins of the organized Jewish community. There is a big chasm in the middle.” Despite the strength of work with these populations, Hebrew school students are still left with very little high-quality programming: “there is nothing but hand-wringing.” The “energy for young adults and millennials” should translate into more concentrated focus on congregational education.
3. Education as a field has become more professionalized. “I think we have begun the process of professionalizing,” stated one expert. “More people are getting graduate degrees than they were two decades ago.” Pockets of mediocrity would not be tolerated today the way they once were. Another observed that although there is more professionalization expected today, this development comes with “pros and cons.” There are “a lot of people in the past who couldn’t find training in the Jewish world who now have programs and paths that never existed before,” which may also lead to having people in the field who are not suited. The “constant communication problem” means that many opportunities for professional development are not broadly shared. “If you’re not in the know or confident enough to be persistent, you won’t know. Too many things are the best kept secrets.”
4. Success lives at the nexus of strong practitioners and strong leaders. Professionals who are well-supported by lay leaders and have a strong sense of mission coupled with productivity can produce remarkable results. “When innovations have really taken hold, it’s when resources are available, and the community provides support.” Strong partnerships among professionals also yield success. “In schools and where you see teachers and principals working closely together, that’s where we are seeing successful learning. Where teachers are learning along with students – that’s where you see success.”
5. We are generally more honest about acknowledging difficulties. One educational leader felt that there is “more willingness to talk about the challenges.” In years past, there was an unarticulated fear that talking about challenges might diminish funding or recruitment. Today, we are more willing and able to address problems publicly that have always existed but were sidelined. “It’s more acceptable to say it’s hard to be a head of school. We can be honest about affordability.” This admission may lead to greater urgency around problem-solving or willingness to use mistakes as case studies for advancement.
6. There are too many programs and not enough strategic thinking. The organized Jewish community is too program-focused, said many respondents, with a tendency to “diagnose problems and try to find the right program to solve them.” Instead, the field needs to grow teachers more effectively, invest in developing better educators and limit the programming. “Grow people, not programs.” Investing in programs distracts us from investing in solid infrastructure and making the case for Jewish education generally: “We’re just not putting out a vision of what learners and participants could really get from meaningful Jewish education of any kind, a vision that pushes people beyond Jewish-light.” Another professional bemoaned the fact that we do not have a career path for teachers other than running schools, which is not a natural trajectory. “After department chair, there’s nothing. In public education, there are so many intermediary positions, where you are paid to mentor.” Teachers also need to be supported beyond their first year. “Without pay and kavod [respect], the field is going to stay the same… You need support to keep growing.”
7. The stress on innovation can undermine the fundamentals of good teaching. The stress on innovation has produced some exciting initiatives but has also raised critical issues about implementation and scalability and mastering techniques of good teaching. One interviewee gave a keynote address on reinventing congregational school education was asked not to talk about innovation. “It’s become so demoralizing. Teachers are tired of chasing innovation. They have to keep inventing something new, when what they care about is kids and community building. Let’s just do smart work.” Innovation, for many, is not always a helpful buzz word: “Lots of innovation grants are scraping the bottom of the barrel. There is not a uniform culture of vision and innovation. Innovation is a mindset. Why do we have to stimulate research in innovation with prizes? Let ideas grow organically. Let’s stress moral, inspirational, visionary leadership… Vision is a twin sister of imagination. Where there’s no disciplined production of vision, there is no imagination.” Hearing these observations from a number of senior educators made me wonder, what would happen if we stressed imagination more? Imagine a school where every teacher was outstanding. This may do a lot more for the field than small pockets of innovation.
8. There aren’t enough cross–sector solutions for problems: “If you want the riches of a talent pool,” said one authority emphatically, “you have to speak across the spectrum.” We need to stop talking to ourselves and “seek solutions from unexpected sources. The day school movement doesn’t need to talk to itself about tefilah [prayer] but talk to those in other faith communities who are having a hard time finding a role for prayer in schools that is meaningful to students.” Schools should be talking to camps and congregational schools should be speaking to JCCs, and “all of us need to speak to those outside the Jewish community about schooling, camping and other forms of experiential education.” This kind of fertilization is critical for growth. “There are not enough cross-sector conversations. There’s a limitation on conversations that are too silo-ed. We need to think of education as an eco-system … and blur the lines between formal and informal.” We need to take down firewalls. “Organizations and communities can be very resistant places.” We may not be asking the right questions: “How do you maximize your inspirational potential? What does it mean to create inspired communities? That’s what I want to think about.” Another academic suggested more integration and cross-fertilization between the Academy and the community. “There is amazing work done by Jewish academics, but their work is marginalized. Maybe each side feels criticized or under-valued by the other. This might itself be a subject for exploration – on why sides aren’t talking.”
9. There is a lack of useful research in Jewish education: It’s hard to be data driven if we don’t have enough data. One scholar shared that there is simply not strong enough evidence on how to teach Hebrew effectively. She then paused and added the same for Israel and Jewish texts. Another said it’s hard to talk about what we are doing well when, “We don’t have a lot of data to inform that question, but we have substantive evidence that Jewish education is key to the success of the Jewish people.” The push for continuity as a cross-communal goal is mystifying because “continuity is static. Education is dynamic.” Within the field of education, we specifically need more information to inform action: “One of our concerns is assessments and outcomes, and can we have more rigor brought to understanding what interventions are or are not leading to better outcomes?” Adding to this problem, another notes, is that some research produced is not widely disseminated. “Because much research is funded by private foundations, a lot of research that could be valuable never gets used broadly.”
10. We need more great teachers. And we need to celebrate the ones we have. There are simply not enough good educators to go around. “No school and no educational process can succeed without extraordinary educators. Teachers – the guidance, connection, relationship, and their masterful guidance of students – are what will make a difference in learners’ lives, and we don’t have enough people choosing the sacred profession of Jewish education.” One academic contends, “We keep lowering the bar on people’s Jewish knowledge who are entering the Jewish education world. But if we want to provide a substantive Jewish education, we need teachers with deep knowledge and bandwidth who can provide that for their students.” This is coupled by the concern that we don’t do enough to honor those who have already chosen education professionally: “…unless we celebrate Jewish educators for the extraordinary professionals they are, who will want this career?” This academic was not the only one to bemoan the difficult lot of Jewish educators today: “It breaks my heart that we have people teaching our children who can’t afford to have their own children in day schools. Every Jewish educator should have tuition for their kids free of charge.”
11. We need to identify talent earlier and grow it. We need to do a better job of recruiting students on an undergraduate level to consider careers in education. One scholar felt strongly that Federations and other Jewish communal organizations “give lip service to education” and don’t help bring prestige to the field by throwing most of their support to non-educational endeavors. We might find and encourage more part-time educators to do this work full-time. “Part-time educators don’t have support structures. They are really left adrift… There is no place for them to go.”
12. Philanthropy works best when philanthropists and professionals talk to each other more. “Professionals used to create the vision and brought funders along. Then it switched. Now philanthropists are the drivers, and professionals are there for implementation.” Neither formula works consistently well. “Only in authentic partnerships can this work get done well.” Another expert would like, “to see more investment in helping funders and parents understand what good Jewish education is. What should they look out for and what should they support instead of what’s new and exciting. What’s sexy to fund is on the micro-level of what touches a child this minute, but we need to look on the macro-level of what is going to work in shifting the culture… The current philanthropic culture has pitted us against one another instead of inviting collaboration.” An academic is concerned that we are isolating learning from funding instead of scholarship, “being part of a rich base of cultural literacy. I have been thinking about a challenge we are facing in Jewish education: our funding structures are so driven by family foundations and their predilections towards specific projects that I’m worried about our intellectual infrastructure.” As a result, this academic believes that the field might actually be worse with the strong infusion of philanthropic dollars. “Hundreds of millions of dollars have not made us better in the field. Institutions are weaker, and funders have unrealistic expectations about what we need. We didn’t make progress on intellectual infrastructure.” One can dispute this claim, but it’s important to hear it. “The lesson is that we need to think system-wide rather than in terms of specific projects, investing for the long-term rather than the short-term. We need a better metaphor for thinking about the Jewish eco-system.”
13. Day school education outside of the Orthodox community is really struggling. So are small day schools. A number of Orthodox day schools are over 50 years old; some over 75 years old and have not necessarily kept up with progressive education trends. They can be very teacher-centric and are having difficulty finding qualified and philosophically appropriate teachers, particularly in Judaic studies. More than a few respondents, however, were “thinking a lot about day school education for non-Orthodox Jews.” One educator describes a wave of popularity for non-Orthodox schools that has past. Those schools are now closed or struggling. “Are they making meaning and conferring substance and information?” another observed that, “Does this mean that within a generation, non-Orthodox Jews will have no ownership of these texts? …I can’t imagine a Jewish people that is not Torah-centered.” This remark does not imply that subjects like history and Hebrew language are not taught seriously in non-Orthodox schools, but that ancient texts may not be taught with enough rigor or given sufficient attention. Another mourned these losses: “Some day schools have defied gravity and have created excellent and viable institutions with quality education. But it’s interesting and sad that a great many non-Orthodox schools are struggling to survive.” [Note: All these comments came from non-Orthodox contributors]. This sense of struggle was also true for smaller schools with smaller resources. “Jewish institutions in small communities are struggling … It can’t be good for Jews to live only in major cities.” Communities with small or no day schools have difficulty attracting Jewish communal professionals, and the delicate eco-system of community gets compromised. Are there ways to use technology more effectively to provide professional development at low-cost and across distances? There have been some experiments but not sustained models. Added to this, suggested one academic is the, “lack of a unified Jewish vision of what Jewish flourishing looks like… As we are becoming more polarized, how do we nurture sub-communities?”
14. We need to make a stronger case for text–based education. “We need to do a better job explaining why substantial Jewish literacy-based programs are important…We are not telling the story well, and we don’t really understand the values and needs of the population we’re trying to reach to help create a form of Jewish education that meets those needs,” observed a senior professional. One educator described the lack of communal support for study as a “serious assault against text.” Education is, in some sense, about unsettling people. That’s harder to do in a culture that values comfort and ease. “Everything is easy. In marketing you want things to be as easy as possible. When you’re in education, you have to create an on-ramp, but not make it easy. Marketing and education represent a real clash of cultures.” This clash may also explain the different way board members and faculty look at schools. “The messiah may come and not be able to lead a Jewish day school,” quipped an academic. “There are a lot of technical challenges so the bigger challenges get neglected.” In teen programming, we tend to stress what teens are interested in and then drop substance, creating another intellectual vacuum.
15. Jewish studies teachers are often the weakest educators in day schools. Several educators and academics identified the weakest educational link in day schools in the arena of Jewish studies, what should be the hallmark of a day school education. “It’s hard to get good Judaic studies teachers and those who teach Hebrew language.” Many such teachers are content-rich but pedagogically poor. “The big problem is Judaic studies teachers, especially in small communities. I’d like to see a lot of people come together to think about issues of prestige, job availability, and excellence. We should bring all the major schools doing teacher training together, increase the pipeline and do better training. Many content-rich teachers lack classroom management skills.” The head of a teacher-training institute who is in the field to “cultivate talent” complained that there is, “lots of effort in building schools but not enough talent to run them.”
16. We may be obsessing too much about Jewish identity. “Not everything has to be defined as Jewish education to provide education.” Schools don’t look at what camps are doing to build identity or youth groups and learn from each other. “In the experience of doing something – a policy or program that has outcomes – our model is always one of deficit and crisis. That’s the general paradigm.” In this model, too many questions are asked about building identity. We catalyze so many conversations on identity that it led one academic to wonder: “A lot of Jewish identity stuff is obsessive; you don’t hear it in a lot of other communities. We need to re-think how we think about Jewish identity. What has our obsession with identity helped us evade?”
17. Demography is destiny. Conversations on education must focus on Jewish demographics. “Demographics play a great deal in the challenges and opportunities of the system: intermarriage and people getting married later and having kids later” will all impact and have already impacted our schools. “The ripple effect from the millennial cohort and its characteristics, contributions and challenges are also important – they are the largest single age cohort in history – and there’s more of them than baby boomers today.” This shift in demographics shifts society. “Millennials are allergic to institutional belonging. They are a free-floating, self-initiating, exploring demographic group, and not likely to pay for membership. They’re more likely to create more niche, more boutique, more grass-roots kind of identities. Given that and given their large size, we have to figure out how to serve this population.” Specifically, we need to think about “ways they think about education for their children… Early childhood education will be important again. If the community is going to focus resources, then early childhood is important.” Jewish education within interfaith families will present another very real challenge moving forward given current demographics. “It’s a real conceptual challenge.” One suggested the purchase of a franchise of early childhood centers made into a new Jewish network.
18. Jewish education needs to be higher on the communal agenda. “There was a time when Jewish education was more important as a topic of conversation than it is now. It’s just not what people are talking about,” said this senior leader who talks about Jewish education constantly. The creation of small sub-committees does not do justice to education’s enduring importance for us as a people. “There needs to be some idea of what we want to achieve. Communities need to do this so they can support clusters of institutions.” Jewish communal structures should “help people scrutinize what they’re doing and build capacity for people to re-imagine their work.” A lot of good models are one-offs, commented one academic engaged in teacher development. We need more platforms to “convene around ideas.” “We’ve been doing Jewish continuity under the banner of Jewish continuity, and it’s not working. It needs to be about relevancy, meaning and added value – Jewish education can help people in their lives.”
As with all conversations, they never really finish. I have spoken to many more people since I conducted these interviews, and there are more people to speak to tomorrow. One thing is clear from all this talk. Conversations on Jewish education deserve a bigger communal platform. Critical issues need a bigger mainstream stage where practitioners, funders, conveners, end-users and researchers can talk to each other, not merely listen to others talking to them or about them. Can we talk?
Contributors: Sharon Avni (CUNY), Josh Feigelson (Ask Big Questions Initiative), Idana Goldberg (formerly Prizmah, now Russell Berrie Foundation), Leora Isaacs ( Consultant, Founding Director of the Berman Center for Research), Susan Kardos (Avi Chai Foundation), Orit Kent (affiliated scholar, Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Brandeis University), Jon Levisohn (Brandeis University), Mitchell Malkus (Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School), Kim Marshall (Independent Education Consultant, Marshall Memo), Rona Novick (Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, Yeshiva University), Alex Pomson (Rosov Consulting), Bill Robinson (William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, Jewish Theological Seminary), Jon Ruskay (Executive Vice-President Emeritus, UJA-Federation of New York), Miriam Heller Stern (HUC-JIR School of Education, Hebrew Union College), Jonathan Woocher (of blessed memory, Lippman-Kanfer Foundation).
Dr. Erica Brown is the director of the Mayberg Center of Jewish Education and Leadership and an associate professor of curriculum and pedagogy at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, The George Washington University.