The Quiet Revolution of Jewish Family Education in Cleveland

by Dr. Jeffrey Schein

In remarks at a May 21st forum on Jewish education sponsored by the Cleveland Jewish News and the Laura and Alvin Siegal Institute of Life-Long Learning, Dr. Seymour Kopelowitz, executive director of the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland observed that “at the core of our task is creating Jewish memories.” Later in the evening when the conversation had turned to what theory could account for a “successful Jewish education” a participant observed that it might be “familial commitment” rather than “excellent education” that most powerfully accounts for strong Jewish identities.

Taken together the two comments help frame an essential dilemma of contemporary Jewish Education. Historically, it was the job of “Jewish schooling” to take experiences forged in the home and community and weave them into the rich conceptual grids of Judaism. But what happens when the “memory banks “ (to return to Dr. Kopelowitz’s idea) of families has no capital in them? What happens when for a variety of complex sociological reasons the “Jewishness” of home life has been greatly diminished? Then the Jewish educating institutions have a very different challenge. It must create the very experiences it was only once responsible for shaping. A potter can’t create a piece of pottery out of air nor do Jewish educators have the Godly power of creatio ex nihilo, creating Jewish identity from scratch without the benefit of a bank of positive Jewish home experiences to be drawn from as the raw stuff of Jewish learning.

This insight was thrown into bold relief by the work of Cleveland Commission on Jewish Continuity of the late 1980’s and 1990’s. The commission framed 10 different initiatives that were designed to reshape Jewish education. The reconceptualization underlying many of them was to think of the family rather than the student as the essential client of Jewish education.

The effect of the Continuity Commission’s initiatives is ongoing in regard to family education in Cleveland. The day following the forum, for instance, 16 rabbis and educators convened for the monthly meeting of the Jewish Family Educators Network. Typically, the network shares ideas and offers critical feedback to one another. At the May meeting a particular focus of the discussion was three “big idea” family education projects at three synagogues developed in collaboration with Rachel Stern, the education director of the Institute for Southern Jewish life and a guest scholar for the network earlier in the year. Two members reported on their experience earlier in the week sharing with educators in Detroit the work of the network funded by a Covenant Foundation grant focused on family dialogue through Jewish values regarding the role of technology in our lives.

A lot of bells and whistles accompanied the encore of family education onto the national stage of Jewish education in the 1980’s and 1990’s. In many communities subsequent waves of innovation and educational “fashion” kicked family education from front to back stage, replaced by other important concerns such as adult learning, professional development, creating vision-driven institutions, and experiential learning. We have tried in Cleveland to address these new concerns at the same time we continue to honor the profundity of this foundational insight of the Continuity Commission by continuing to roll up our sleeves and doing the hard work of providing better educational experiences for and forging better partnerships with families.

Dr. Jeffrey Schein is a Reconstructionist Rabbi and is director of the Adolescent Initiative and Special Projects at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland.