Tough questions

The current state of Jewish education: Glass half full, glass half empty. Which is it? Depends on who you ask

In Short

Is the current state of Jewish education half full or half empty? You could say that the answer is somewhere in between, that both are true, at least to some extent. Or you could say that it really does depend on who you ask. There are people who love looking at the exceptional bright spots and people who look at aggregate data.

This piece is adapted from the first episode of season 3 of Adapting, hosted by David Bryfman, CEO of The Jewish Education Project. The podcast welcomes a new guest each episode to explore some of the challenges facing Jewish education.

What is the current state of Jewish education in North America today? Here are two points of view that, strangely enough, both happen to be true.

  • We’re coming off a great summer for Jewish education in North America. Thousands of Jewish youth and young adults experienced one of the best summers for Jewish residential and day camps ever. 
  • We just started an academic year in which, according to recent data, Jewish day school enrollment is up. This follows success stories of triumphant accomplishments during the pandemic.
  • Jewish early childhood centers more than weathered the COVID storm, not only showing how valuable they are as parents returned to work, but also displaying flexibility and creativity in adverse circumstances, best symbolized by their ability to turn outdoor areas into classrooms at a moment’s notice.
  • As people return to in person congregational life, there is much excitement in supplementary schools as they are gearing up for in-person, digital, and hybrid education.
  • People are talking about Jewish adult education and even grandparent education. There also are more offerings for students on college campuses and Jewish young adults who are finding responsive Jewish organizations as they search for more meaning and community.
  • Israel travel is booming with new programs for teens and tweens in the ether and Birthright numbers are back to pre-pandemic highs.
  • Jewish philanthropy is stepping up like never before with foundations and federations investing millions of dollars in Jewish education.
  • There are a couple of new serious journals dedicating pages and even volumes to talking about Jewish education. Jewish education startups are reaching Jews who would otherwise have been unengaged in Jewish life, and legacy organizations are realizing that they too can be part of the innovation scene in Jewish life.
  • Critical efforts are reaching many previously marginalized sectors of the Jewish population, with real inroads to reach Jews of color, Jewish learners with special needs, and immigrant populations.
  • And perhaps most incredibly, with the booming of Jewish education online there are probably more Jews, from more sectors of Jewish life engaged in serious Jewish learning like no other time in Jewish history. And if we ever doubted it before, now it is very clear and obvious, our Jewish educators really are some of our greatest heroes — often putting their own well-being behind that of their students and learners in order to give them the true gift of Jewish education.

I am in awe of the work that Jewish educators are doing, and especially what they overcame in the last two plus years of the pandemic. But there’s another way to tell the same story, another way to slice the data — one which we often don’t like to do or talk about in public, because it might seem disparaging or disheartening. It isn’t meant to offend the gallant people doing the actual work, but sometimes systemic shortcomings need to be discussed. So, here’s the same state of Jewish education today — told from another perspective:

  • Summer is over and thank goodness we seem to be on the other side of the pandemic, or are we? Yes, Jewish education has survived COVID but is badly battered with many preexisting challenges that we often preferred not to speak about, and perhaps were even exacerbated by the last two years.
  • Summer camps survived through one of the toughest summers ever, with staff exhausted from combating COVID as well as unrelenting and demanding parents.
  • While the aggregate number of children enrolled in day schools might be up, there are countless day schools on the verge of closure, smaller communities struggling to provide adequate Jewish education offerings, and because day school numbers highly tilt towards modern Orthodox and orthodox families, the future is tenuous for many non-orthodox Jewish day schools.
  • Congregations are struggling to get kids back in person and digital options are inadequate or ineffective for many of these poorly resourced supplementary schools. school numbers, and the very existence of Jewish early childhood centers are threatened by changes in government legislation.
  • While many people outside of university settings claim that Jewish life on campus is threatened by increasing antisemitism and anti-Israel attitudes on campus — many colleges are operating in a different reality with the biggest obstacles to Jewish life being a mix of complacency and apathy.
  • The mental health crisis is real — both for educators and learners who are crying out for help that Jewish institutions are unable to provide, and more astonishingly not even on the radar of people to turn to for help.
  • Two issues are overwhelmingly threatening the very future of Jewish education. First, Jewish education, in all of its forms, is increasingly unaffordable for an increasing majority of Jews. And second, there is a Jewish educator shortage that is presenting a real crisis — not enough people are coming into the field, burnout is real, and too few of our talented educators are being retained.
  • I’m told by some that money isn’t the problem, but with no independent think tank for Jewish education, federations and foundations continue to fund things based on hunches, donor driven priorities and a paucity of research that they are largely funding themselves. And perhaps the most obvious physical example of Jewish educational malaise — hundreds of Jewish buildings are empty most of the time. 
  • But most critical, if we’re to be truly honest with ourselves, there simply aren’t enough people asking the question of why Jewish education matters today — and answering it with a response that speaks to the literally hundreds of thousands of Jews out there who state over and over again that they are proud to be Jewish, but simply can’t find any relevant, accessible, or affordable Jewish education to meet their needs.

Deep breath. So, which is it? Is the current state of Jewish education half full or half empty? You could say that the answer is somewhere in between, that both are true, at least to some extent. Or you could say that on one hand it really does depend on who you ask. There are optimists and there are pessimists. There are people who love looking at the exceptional bright spots and people who look at aggregate data.

This season of Adapting is meant to challenge the discrepancies in Jewish education today by asking some of the tougher and more challenging questions. We don’t expect you to agree with all of our guests, but we do urge you not to resist even asking the questions, and hopefully, to sit with their answers, even the uncomfortable ones.          

To me it’s quite simple. In 2020, industries forever changed. Some might revert back to the way they were — and my prognosis for them isn’t all that healthy. Why would we be so naïve to think that the only industry not to change would be Jewish education? And the truth is, the pandemic didn’t raise too many new challenges for Jewish education. But it certainly did expose some gaps and open our eyes to some of these challenges and even exacerbate a few.

The challenges are real, and the real question is, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to let external realities change the face of Jewish education, or are we going to take control — and at least ask the tough questions that need to be asked in 2022?

David Bryfman is CEO of The Jewish Education Project and host of the Adapting podcast.