Reinventing Jewish Education

by Dr. Jonathan Woocher

It’s time to reinvent Jewish education. That isn’t because Jewish education today is bad; it’s because it can be much, much better than it is. It’s a bit like Jewish education today is using a Walkman, while the world is listening to iPods. The music is playing, but it’s a lot more cumbersome and limited than it needs to be.

I’m not talking primarily about technology here – though using technology more widely and effectively is certainly part of the reinvention we need. I’m talking about operating an educational system that is outmoded in a number of key ways and that really doesn’t respond as effectively as it could to today’s learners and their families.

To make the change we need, we’ll have to shift a few paradigms. (Actually, the paradigms are already shifting; we just need to make sure the process accelerates. As William Gibson, the science fiction writer put it: “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.”) Perhaps first and foremost, we need to put learners at the center of our thinking and practice, and not just as the consumers of what we offer. In today’s world learners (and their families) want to be co-producers of their own Jewish experiences, what in the jargon of the day we call ‘prosumers.’ This doesn’t mean that there is no role for educators or that we or the learners themselves want a system in which there is no guidance from teachers or rabbis. Good education is always a dialogue, not a monologue. But, it does mean we must take much more seriously the fact that learners should have an active voice in shaping both their immediate learning experience and, even more, their own learning journeys – journeys that we hope will last a lifetime.

It’s not only the learners’ and educators’ roles that need to change, it’s also how we frame the goals of the educational process. The reigning paradigm for Jewish education has been built around a concept of Jewish identity that sees it as something threatened by the encounter with the wider world. We fear the loss of Jewish identity (“assimilation”), and Jewish education is charged with preventing this loss by making us “more Jewish.” This is a paradigm that had its time and place, but no longer reflects our situation today in North American life, nor, much more importantly, the outlook and aspirations of our learners. The hallmark of successful Jewish education today is the extent to which it can provide learners with resources drawn from the Jewish tradition and from the contemporary Jewish community that help them to live meaningful, purposeful, and fulfilling human lives. Jewishness is a means, not an end in itself, and we must adjust our educational thinking and practice to embrace this shift. Our learners today want to bring their Judaism out into the world, to share it with others who are not Jewish, and to use it to enrich both their own lives and the lives of others.

A third key paradigm that must be changed is the one that regularly divides Jewish education into a variety of silos – institutional, conceptual (formal vs. informal), even denominational. This doesn’t mean that institutions, denominations, or different modalities of learning will disappear. But it does mean that they may look somewhat different than they do today (already religious schools look less and less like “school”), and most definitely that they will work differently – they’ll work together, rather than simply alongside one another. If we think about Jewish education as an unfolding set of experiences that can, will, and should take place in multiple settings – synagogues, schools, camps, Israel, service programs, the home, art studios, on line, etc., etc. – then it becomes clear that all of these settings need to work in concert with one another to create the richest possible array of experiences, diverse (affording multiple entry points and pathways), but inter-connected (allowing for reinforcement and graceful handoffs), in order to attract and affect the largest possible number of learners.

There are other paradigm shifts as well that will propel the reinvention of Jewish education – bringing innovators from the margins of the educational system to its center; redesigning business models to rely less on membership and more on value delivered; validating risk and an experimental mindset. At the end of the day, though, the key question is the one that the upcoming Jewish Education Summit at the URJ Biennial will pose: Are we ready to challenge the status quo, to assert that the many aspects of Jewish education today that are positive and successful are not a rationale for resting on our laurels, but for reaching toward a future that can be even more positive and successful?

Way back in the ancient 1960s, a Jewish boy from Hibbing told us that “the times, they are ‘a changin’.” They were, and they are. It’s time to reinvent Jewish education. And, we have it within our power to do so.

Jonathan Woocher, Chief Ideas Officer and Director of the Lippman Kanfer Institute at JESNA, will be participating in the Education Summit: Youth Engagement at the URJ Biennial. Register online today to attend the Summit.

Spotlight on Lifelong Jewish Learning: This month the URJ is highlighting resources to help congregations with their Jewish education programming, from early childhood learning, through religious school, to post b’nei mitzvah, adult study and beyond. Visit the URJ Lifelong Jewish Learning website for more info.

This article first appeared on; reprinted with permission.