The power of Jewish education
Despite many challenges, the glass is still half full. At my very core I believe that Jewish education has the capacity to make people better versions of themselves, to make the communities in which we live stronger, and indeed to make the world a better place.
This is an abridged version of the speech that David Bryfman, CEO of The Jewish Education Project, delivered at the agency’s annual spring event.
Bruchim Habaim. It is more than just a message of greeting and welcome, it literally means blessed are those who come here. And tonight, I truly want to welcome and bless everyone for coming to tonight’s benefit and to honor Martine Fleishman, who has led an agency that has not only survived this pandemic, but has thrived and grown over these past 3 years.
The Jewish Education Project, formerly the Board of Jewish Education of New York, in partnership with UJA-Federation of New York, has been serving Jewish educators for over 100 years. It is humbling to stand here today and state that by almost any measure, we are stronger today than at any other time in our history, now reaching Jewish educators in every American state and in over 150 countries, signifying our transition to a New York agency with an expanding national and even global footprint.
In 2020, a few months into the pandemic, I changed my email signature from CEO of The Jewish Education Project to Proud CEO of The Jewish Education Project.
At that time we had already offered over 100 webinars to Jewish educators helping them transition to digital instruction (including Zoom bombing), developed an online Jewish educator portal, launched digital support networks for hundreds of Jewish educators, offered mental health strategies to cope with quarantine and those having to mourn and grieve online, and were one of the first organizations in the Jewish community to quickly pivot our annual benefit to be a remote event. I was proud of the work that we were doing, and particularly proud of all of my staff who rose to the occasion – knowing that it was precisely for this time that we were primed to excel.
My friends, although this pandemic is not over, we are now emerging on the other side and I am here tonight to thank all of you for standing by The Jewish Education Project during these difficult years, and for believing with us that, “gam ze yavor, that this too shall pass.”
But I am not just proud of what we did in those first few months of COVID. Over the past years I was proud when we stood up as an agency against racism in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, I was proud when we stood up against rising antisemitism, I was proud when we provided resources and training after the missiles flew in Gaza and the aftermath of violence in Israel, and again after the insurrection in the capital. Even now we have made numerous resources available to educators helping them explain to their students what Jewish law has to say on abortion, because we understand, perhaps more than ever, that for Jewish education to be meaningful and relevant it must speak to the most challenging issues, the ones that matter most for today’s youth and their families. There is indeed much to be proud of.
But as incredible as we’ve been in rising to every challenge, what has really set The Jewish Education Project apart over the last two plus years is our ability to meet the challenges of today, while simultaneously envisioning and building the Jewish education we want to see tomorrow.
Who in their right mind would have thought that during a worldwide pandemic it was the right time to launch RootOne and send thousands of Jewish teens to Israel? Who would have thought that now was the time to build a new educational platform that would bring learning directly into the homes of Jewish youth and their families?
Many looked at us in amazement, others in bewilderment, but we all held the belief, staff and lay leadership alike, that now was our moment to shine. And, to paraphrase Hillel, if not now, when? The Jewish Education Project is a leader in the field of Jewish education because we bring big bold ideas and new models to meet people where they’re at today and where we want them to be tomorrow.
In the midst of all of this optimism and pride, I am helping my son, Jonah, prepare for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. It’s Parsha Shelach and we’ve been discussing Moses and the 12 spies he sends into Canaan, and the reports that they bring back. While some people talk about the spies as a test of faith, Jonah asks the question as to whether the spies saw the Promised Land as one-half full or half empty, and this question of optimism and pessimism is consuming him. He gets where the ten spies are coming from but feels really good about the positive reports that Joshua and Caleb bring to Moses. There’s something about Joshua and Caleb’s reporting which is more than just wishful thinking. They both acknowledge the challenges ahead, and they are not naïve – and yet they are still filled with hope and belief that the world they enter will indeed be one filled with Milk and Honey. And while none of us know what the future beyond this pandemic holds, like Joshua and Caleb, we, at The Jewish Education Project, are approaching the future with eyes wide open, but also filled with hope, vision, and optimism.
The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many preexisting conditions in Jewish education. There is a major Jewish educator shortage, Jewish education is too expensive, we are years behind technological trends, there is a mental health crisis, Holocaust survivors are fewer and fewer, our kids don’t know how to confront antisemitism and a new generation of youth are more distant from Israel than previous generations…I could go on. We, as a community must acknowledge these challenges and rise now to meet them.
And yet, despite all of these challenges and more, the glass is still half full. At my very core I believe that Jewish education has the capacity to make people better versions of themselves, to make the communities in which we live stronger, and indeed to make the world a better place.
It is on all of us, right now, to have the same strength and conviction as these two courageous spies. And by “us” I mean every single person on the staff of The Jewish Education Project, all of our committed board members, all of our investors and supporters, and especially to our partner UJA-Federation of NY, for which we are so appreciative. The fact that The Jewish Education Project is coming out of this pandemic stronger than ever is a testament to these countless supporters, federations and philanthropic foundations by our side, so that we can ensure that Jewish education is able to reach every young Jew and their families, to inspire and empower them, and to thrive as Jews and in the world.