Synagogue-based Religious Schools: A Community Responsibility

By Lisa Harris Glass and Stephanie Hausner

Day schools are great. Day schools are effective. Day schools yield committed knowledgeable Jewish adults. The Jewish community has spent years touting the benefits of day school education. Have we been distracted by the shiny object?

Day schools are not the vehicle of choice for the vast majority of the North American Jewish community. In fact, a majority of our Jewish children are being educated in synagogue-based religious schools. As such, there exists a moral imperative to invest in the vehicle through which we must inspire the next generation and our collective vibrant Jewish future.

We have spent a generation disproportionately focused on day schools, thereby relegating supplemental religious schools to second-class status. Our efforts have done nothing to increase day school choice in the majority of the Jewish community; but have served to successfully demoralize supplemental school education directors and decimate the bench of quality, qualified, inspiring religious school teachers. We have consigned our number one opportunity to inspire/ignite a lifelong love of Judaism and positive Jewish identity to “less than,” “wannabe” status.

Although Federations, such as ours, have invested in change processes for synagogue-based schools, on the whole it has fallen off the radar as a communal and philanthropic priority.

As in many communities, our northern New Jersey synagogues were experiencing membership drop-off post Bar/Bat Mitzvah as well as a low percentage of enrollment in Hebrew High School. This sad statistic begged the question, “How effective is what we are doing when so many consumers leave once their transaction (bar mitzvah) is complete?”

We asked our congregation leaders (lay and professional) what do we want the products of your synagogue’s religious school to look like? What are your community’s goals for that child? What are the parents’ goals for that child? One of our synagogue leaders responded, “ … I would want them to find strong meaning in their Jewish identity, which may not be demonstrated in the same way I would, but it would be a positive Jewish identity. We spend so much time in congregational schools prepping for Bar Mitzvah prayers, but if our goal for our children is a strong Jewish identity, raising Jewish grandchildren, and embracing a role in the Jewish community – what can we do not just as educators, but as congregational leaders to move us forward in that goal.”

Enter ATID (Addressing Transformative Innovative Design in Jewish Education), a school improvement, system change/capacity building venture through which Federation provides best practice, resource research, education and facilitation services to change-ready synagogue schools; designed in collaboration with Debra Brosan, CEO of Gestaltworks. The nurturing and molding of our future Jewish adults is an all-inclusive community responsibility. Religious school innovation initiatives must be rooted in partnership with the synagogue board (not silo-d within the synagogue’s board of education). Through ATID, we work with synagogue teams on their mission and vision; brainstorm alternative models, get feedback from stakeholders, and develop metrics for success.

The synagogues that participate in our ATID initiative must have a full team comprised of their (senior) rabbi, lead education professional, school board president, a synagogue executive committee member (not the current president, but a future president), a teacher, and a parent. In year one (5774) five synagogues participated in the ATID process. [You can read more about their pilots in the addendum, linked below]. This year (5775) we have three synagogues participating in ATID.

Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative has hosted two conferences focusing on alternative models of religious school education. The first conference, held in November 2013, was attended by rabbis, educators, synagogue leadership, parents, and thought leaders in Jewish education in North America. One hundred people representing 34 synagogues in the northern New Jersey area attended. A guide was published in November, 2013 as a support document for the workshop.

An early lesson learned was that, for many schools, a cookie cutter – one model approach does not work. Rather, many of the schools adapted a blend of different models. In response to this learning, this year’s Alternative Models of Religious School workshop (November 2014), focused entirely on hybrid models – those that cannot be defined as just one thing (camp, Shabbat, project-based learning), but show components of multiple models. An addendum reflecting this research was published in conjunction with the workshop. A hallmark of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative and one deployed in these guides is that they only feature models that are successfully deployed in suburban communities within the United States. Relatability and replicability are keys to instilling confidence in those who are change ready (and in overcoming barriers with the less-ready).

Exposure to innovative ideas was/is not enough. We have given synagogues tools to analyze characteristics and outcomes of models to determine what they need to do in order to achieve their desired outcome.

With five schools (representing eight synagogues) piloting new endeavors and three more beginning the process we know we are touching nearly 700 students and more than 7000 Jewish adults who make up those communities that share the communal responsibility of raising tomorrow’s Jewish adults.

We at the Northern New Jersey Jewish Federation are fully committed to outcomes. We stand ready to contribute to and participate in a larger communal conversation on this critical issue. Let’s focus on what we want and work backwards toward purposefully and relentlessly achieving our goals. Call us.

Lisa Harris Glass in the Managing Director of Community Planning and Impact for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. Stephanie Hausner is the Manager of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative. The SLI is funded in partnership by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation.