The Kehilla is the Curriculum

The Kehilla is the Curriculum:
Some Initial Thoughts on a New Approach to Congregational Education
by Rabbi Jim Rogozen

I’ve written before about the need for congregations to determine their mission and vision before making huge changes to their educational program. I’d like to suggest a few ideas that might bridge the gap between mission/vision and curriculum.

An article in The Atlantic (“Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”) indicated that Facebook has actually increased the sense of loneliness and isolation among Americans. People are not connecting in deep ways with others. A recent clip by Shimi Cohen called The Innovation of Loneliness also posits that social networks do not create strong relationships or community; in fact, they lead to a sense of isolation by replacing “real” friendships with “friends.”

When critics say that Conservative congregations are losing ground because of theological irrelevance, I ask them: Do Conservative Jews really go to Chabad because of their 200-year old book of theology called the Tanya? No, they go for the community they aren’t finding elsewhere.

I don’t think the Conservative Movement’s response to affiliation challenges necessarily involves changes in our theology or our approach to halakha. Rather, we need to create strong, intentional, purposeful synagogue communities. As we set out to create these communities, our mission or vision statements must be powerful, intense, exciting; documents that point towards a “why” and a “way” of living that embodies real values and aspirations. The language must be clear, pointing toward something that everyone “gets” and can feel, breathe and see around them. Once the vision is in place, a synagogue’s mission is to create that community.

If all goes well, someone describing the “brand experience” of such a kehilla will use phrases such as “being part of a compelling community” or a “community of responsibility.” People in the kehilla will feel the need to be present for others; they will want to learn more in order to be a stronger member of their community; they will come to see that Jewish Tradition gives their lives meaning, because it is lived for and with others. In order to guide and sustain their community, the “why” of their commitments (in actions and investment of resources) will be clear to those with whom they interact.

In such an intentional community the theological and educational innovations that arise will represent the true beliefs and needs of that community; they will aim for ongoing coherence and relevance. This organic approach will reflect a natural evolution of that Jewish community’s values and practices. So too, the kehilla will encourage, honor and support each member’s (and family’s) spiritual journey, wherever that leads them.

Instilling a sense of responsibility for keeping a community strong begins at a young age. The goal is to manage a shift from “me” to “we”. This is where creativity, innovation and experimentation come in, building upon one pedagogical foundation: the kehilla (community) is the curriculum.

In moving from the mission of building community to an actual curriculum, the educational program serves the purpose of the kehilla; it provides the skills, context and meaning for the learners who are part of that community’s life. This can happen in many ways, but the basic “best practice” elements of such a curriculum might include: a “needs-based” approach to learning; compelling relevance of the material; passionate role models of curiosity, behavior, and care; the skills of living in, and sustaining, a community (e.g. how to work in a group, problem solving, peer mediation, communication, planning and evaluation, inclusivity skills, how to make a shiva call, how to lead a minyan, etc.). Educational programming (for all age groups) should include training in leadership skills and “community-ship”. In such a program, organizing principles and vocabulary would include: Empowerment, Vitality, Experience, Ownership, Relevance, and Connection.

An educational program that “grows” community will include various stakeholders in the process, beginning with the family. Rather than invite families to “one-off programs”, kehillot must involve them in ways that organically further the value and practice of community. When children see their parents, in natural ways, acting as responsible members of a kehilla, the “kehilla curriculum” comes alive.

This is clearly not the classic “Hebrew-Bible-Holidays” approach. Rather, it takes elements of earlier curricula and embeds them in the context of a dynamic, lived Judaism.

All of this will require new understandings for congregants, school parents and board members. It will also lead to new job descriptions (and training) for Rabbis and educators. In a re-visioned synagogue, in which the curriculum is about building and sustaining the kehilla, every member of the kehilla is an educator, and the motto is: “what is lived is learned.”

Rabbi Jim Rogozen is Chief Learning Officer at United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.