The Building Blocks of Jewish Education

By Dr. Barry Chazan

[This article is the second in Advancing Jewish Leadership: A Series on Jewish Context and Professional Practices. Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership is currently marking its 90th anniversary with the launch of the Center for Jewish Leadership. In this series, faculty, mentors, graduates, and staff of Spertus Institute’s graduate degree, certificate, and professional programs share valuable insights relevant to all those working for and with Jewish organizations.

Read Article #1 by Dr. Dean P. Bell, Series Introduction: Insights from the Field and the Classroom]

Within the last ten years, Jewish professional education has undergone a drastic transformation. Graduate institutions catering to pre-professional Jewish students now populate every region of the United States, providing quality instruction to aspiring professionals who seek entry into the Jewish communal sector. This, by and large, has been a change for the better. After all, great Jewish communities thrive in no small part because of the professionals and leaders who serve them. But within the same span of time, it has become increasingly apparent that very few of these institutions address the needs of mid-career and veteran professionals, people who have already proven themselves in the Jewish communal sector and now want to enrich their Jewish educations through real-world experience and one-on-one mentoring.

In an effort to best attend this crucial demographic, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, where I serve as the Founding Director of the Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies (MAJPS) Program, has designed a unique three-pronged curriculum that we believe provides the best possible learning experience for Jewish mid-career professionals. Combining modern Jewish content, a dynamic teaching culture, and student-centric pedagogy, our unique program affords students an immersive and holistic Jewish education. By sharing the principles of our unique curriculum, we hope to serve as an example for other institutions considering implementing related programs of their own.

The foundation for all Jewish professional educational programs is substance. If leaders of tomorrow’s Jewish communities desire to be effective, they must be comfortable not only with the precepts of modern business, but also with authentically Jewish tenets and values. The key difference in our approach is that students do not simply read the requisite texts and literature concerning these fields. Rather, our program immerses students in situations that require them to synergistically consult historical Jewish sources and modern business practices in real-world situations. For example, in a course I teach called Working with People, students examine case studies from real Jewish communal organizations in order to apply the core principles they are learning and to achieve actionable results in their own organizations.

Of course, the efficacy of our courses owes much to the quality of the educators and business professionals we appoint to teach them. At Spertus, we like to think that our instructors do more than just transmit knowledge. We believe they are more like the catalysts that engender ideas in the minds of our students. Under the Spertus model, students and teachers work together as equals. We therefore hold our professors, as well as our students, to the highest possible standards. We aim to hire educators who are not only experts in their fields, but who can provide immediate access to the original sources and documents our students encounter through their coursework. Our classes, offered in collaborative cohort models, ensure that students go through the program as a group and graduate as a group with individual attention from skilled faculty working in the field. We encourage students to forge deep professional relationships with their classmates, relationships that often extend beyond classroom walls and into professional life.

After all, success in the Jewish communal sector depends largely on the extent to which one is engaged with the Jewish professional network. To address this reality, Spertus developed a person-centric pedagogical style that prioritizes relationship skills and interpersonal connection. Class sizes at Spertus are designed to be small, cultivating the kind of collaborative environment in which ideas and opinions are shared freely and confidently. More importantly, we’ve instituted a unique mentorship program in which each student in the Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies program is matched with a professional in the Jewish community. Under the guidance of their mentors, our students integrate their studies and professional experiences, advance their individualized learning agendas, and engage in reflective and practical discussions of the day-to-day operations of real organizations in their respective Jewish communities. Students also complete an Independent Learning Project, in which students choose a topic that matters to them and engage with it on an academic level. In the past, students have developed business plans, market analyses, communications plans, and funding proposals for day schools, synagogues, foundations, Jewish cultural organizations, new cooperative initiatives, and more.

Through the strategic application of these core concepts – modern Jewish content, a dynamic teaching culture, and student-centric pedagogy – Spertus Institute aims to provide for its students the most holistic educational experience possible. We know that to do this we must seek and enroll students who are both receptive to new ideas and motivated to make a difference in their respective communities, and we do. I am also proud to say that our students and faculty reflect a level of heterogeneity reflective of today’s Jewish world, ranging in denominational identity from Reform to Orthodox. Our students range in business experience as well, from entry level to CEO. Striving to match this heterogeneity, our programs offer courses that cater to both Jewish educators and Jewish professionals. We consider ourselves a forward-facing, technology-embracing institution, and to this effort we do our best to make available the maximum amount of online content in an easily digestible and user-friendly fashion.

For more than seven years, students in the Chicago area have benefited from this multi-faceted approach to Jewish professional studies. The success of the program owes much to the foundations of our core curriculum, and we’re proud to announce that the program has since expanded into other American cities as well as Canada, and that an Israeli cohort will begin this spring. As the graduates of these cohorts apply their new learning to their work, we’re confident that they will be capable of effecting change and innovation in the Jewish communities they serve.

Dr. Barry Chazan is the Founding Program Director of the Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies program at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, where he holds a faculty appointment as Professor of Jewish Education. He has served in important professional capacities with the Melton Center for Jewish Education, the Jewish Community Centers Association, and Birthright Israel.