Sparking a Jewish Learning Renaissance: a Flipped Model

By Dr. Ariel Burger

For over 25 years, Boston’s Jewish Federation, Combined Jewish Philanthopies (CJP), has been uniquely committed to transforming Jewish life. CJP President Barry Shrage’s vision of a community of purpose and meaning has enabled high-impact initiatives, particularly in Adult Jewish Learning, to grow and thrive, resulting in generations of inspired synagogue and federation leadership. Barry has articulately shared his vision at length over the years, establishing a culture of commitment that has now allowed us to build a new wave of Adult Learning in Boston, a model of great relevance to other communities.

In Boston, Adult Learning has always been seen as a key gateway experience for transforming Jewish communities. The theory was that as adults encountered Jewish ideas, texts, and narratives, they would begin to value their Judaism as much as they did Shakespeare and other elements of the Western canon. For a highly educated audience, we would give them sophisticated Jewish learning and a comprehensive map of the Jewish intellectual tradition. Me’ah, a program of CJP and Hebrew College (HC), provided that map in the form of a two-year course with leading academic lecturers. To date over 3500 people have taken Me’ah resulting in extended communities of learners throughout Boston.

Despite this success, we found that younger people in our community weren’t signing up for such a time-intensive course. In response, CJP and HC created Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, and more recently created a new program for young adults, Eser, both of which balance breadth and accessibility with depth and substance. Both programs have grown significantly in recent years.

But for younger learners there were particular challenges. For many young adults and families with young children, Jewish learning is associated with a mediocre Hebrew School experience. It feels alienating, irrelevant, and for many people it is seen as a subject like chemistry. If you happen to be a chemistry nut you’ll have a lifelong connection to chemistry, but for most people it’s a subject you had to suffer through when you were young, and don’t really want to return to in later life – nor share the experience with your child.

A year and half ago we began to explore what it would look like to flip our strategy from program-centric to relational models. What would result if we tapped the power of social networks to spark interest among highly influential connectors in our community? We began to see a new potential: to create a large-scale movement of Adult Jewish Learning, and open the doors to hundreds if not thousands more learners. We had wonderful “destinations” – our core programs, whose quality was proven and continued to grow. But we lacked the on-ramps to engage those who were facing away from Jewish learning, who didn’t even know they could benefit from it.

We knew of great models in the Jewish world of organizing, including social justice organizing, some of Hillel’s recent work, and more. We had developed our own methods for outreach and engagement, including hub connectors, lay ambassadors, and creative online outreach through JewishBoston.com. But we had not used those methods to promote a Jewish learning renaissance.

And that is what we began to do. We looked for partners who could deliver on that engagement imperative, and we found a great one: Kevah, a West-Coast based organization that builds and supports customized small group learning in living rooms, board rooms and cafes. We shifted the culture internally at federation, so that staff experienced serious Jewish learning, and development officers, who own many of the relationships with highly influential connectors, became essential team members in opening conversations about Jewish learning with potential Kevah group hosts. We raised money and began funding Kevah, while also supporting Hebrew College to update and expand our core program offerings, and to create a new fellowship, Leaders in Adult Learning, to engage alumni as ambassadors for Jewish Learning. And we put on a large-scale event in April to both celebrate Barry’s vision of a literate and empowered Jewish community, and to launch our new Adult Learning Campaign.

The response has been terrific: next generation donors and volunteers are excited to host groups in their homes, to learn with an intimate group of 8-14 friends on a topic of their choice, and to help expand the circle of learners. Organizations have expressed interest in partnering over time and investing in small group learning as a meaning-rich engagement tool in their spaces as well. And CJP itself is taking the lead in a grand experiment to engage large numbers of new learners in inspired Jewish learning, one small group at a time.

There is a lot more to say about the pedagogical approaches involved in constructivist small group learning, and about the marketing and rebranding efforts that are an essential part of this effort. We are at the beginning of one of the most powerful change initiatives at CJP in the last 20 years: using social networks to drive Jewish learning; and using Jewish learning to drive deeper and richer connections between people, and between learners and Jewish meaning.

By building on the power of relationships, we are opening new opportunities to host conversations between young learners, great teacher-facilitators, and powerful Jewish texts. And by inviting Rabbi Akiva and Bruria, Maimonides and Heschel to our communal table, we can create and foster the next generation of an informed, inspired and committed community.

Ariel Burger is the Director of the Commission on Jewish Life and Learning at Combined Jewish Philanthropies, where he leads federation’s efforts for Jewish learning across Greater Boston. This October Ariel will embark on a new role at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, as designer of the adult learning initiative for PJ Library.