Remixing Jewish Education for the Future

by Harlene Winnick Appelman

From its genesis, the Jewish Futures Conference was designed to jumpstart a conversation and spur people to suspend disbelief and imagine what could be. While we cannot predict the future of Jewish education, all of us must take responsibility for it, along with those we work with and influence every day.

In fact, the conference was an incredible illustration of what “remixable” can mean. From music to technology to new thinking about leadership and hierarchy, this “mashup” conference challenged everyone to rethink the boundaries of Jewish education and their own minds.

Undoubtedly, the tension between guarding sanctified traditions and innovating along unchartered routes is part of the fabric of contemporary Judaic discourse.

Each avenue, tradition and innovation is concurrently attractive and hazardous. The preservation of time-honored traditions carries the danger of a fossilized worldview. Yet as we open the doors to change, we run the risk of forsaking the path of our ancestors.

This tension seems to be at the root of one of the texts that Charlie Schwartz and Russel Neiss studied with conference participants – “(On that day) the doorkeeper was removed from the Beit Midrash, and permission was given to the disciples to enter … On that day many stools were added … and on that day no questions in the Beit Midrash were left unresolved.” (Berachot 27b-28a)

Their charge? We must tear down the doors of the Beit Midrash but also be responsible for filling the seats within it. The question, of course, is how? How do we ensure that Jewish education is a destination as well as a journey? How do we open the doors of the Beit Midrash?

For sure, there are plenty of Jewish people who care enough to want their voices to be heard. A Jewish Futures Conference survey to gauge what Jewish parents and children are thinking generated 2,000 responses in the week before the GA. The challenge is that if you ask for opinions, people expect their responses to be taken seriously. It is time to consider the wisdom of crowds and determine how to use such responses.

The delivery of Jewish education is changing as we speak. Whether it’s a different use of time or a different way of identifying content, students are doing it their way with or without the institutions that have been the chief delivery systems to date.

And, in fact, some of the most sophisticated use of technology is coming from parts of the traditional Jewish community that no one would have predicted. Serious asynchronous learning is available on the Internet and has been for at least the last five years.

There seems to be unlimited information available. The challenge is making meaning from it.

Meaningful education can be delivered in a variety of ways in a variety of arenas. Not using the best of resources and the best tools to deliver them shows a lack of respect for the learner and the content.

Music and the arts too – in whatever medium they are delivered – can feed our imaginations, heal our spirits, and inspire us to evolve and grow and learn. They are a vital part of a holistic approach to Jewish education. Such was the message of singer and songwriter Clare Burson, whose clear voice and beautiful lyrics from her work, Silver and Ash, took everyone on a powerful journey into the past.

Finally, Ori Brafman’s far-too-brief glimpse into how some communities are successfully organizing needs to be taken seriously. His starfish/spider paradigm is so compelling that even the United States Army is considering it under advisement. Surely, the Jewish community could learn something from it.

According to Brafman, leadership is shared and decentralized based on the concepts of trust, intimacy, common values and motivation. The power of small groups is emphasized and supported. We must examine our Jewish community to see where these principles can best be applied and remixed with concepts with which our community is more familiar.

Knowing our community and our families, considering new ways of organizing our institutions and communities, respecting and embracing new ways of delivering content and knowledge – the paradigms and models are out there, but it is up to us to be part of the movement and truly become educational leaders, or risk losing our voice.

Our hope for the Jewish Futures Conference was for it to begin a conversation, to change the vocabulary and to move from dreaming to responsible change and implementation. It was meant to leverage conversation and use all of the resources currently available to enhance the text and context of Jewish wisdom.

The Covenant Foundation supported it, believing it would add a plank to the Foundation’s platform of dreams and its breath of optimism for the Jewish community.

Harlene Winnick Appelman is Executive Director, The Covenant Foundation.