The Real Breakthrough in Jewish Education

by Dr. Gil Graff

Early in the summer, as I walked with two young people (following a Shabbat dinner), one of them asked the other – a 22 year old recent college graduate: “If you could travel anywhere for 10 days, where would you go?” Without hesitation, the young man replied that he would want to go to the nearby residential Jewish summer camp where he had spent so many wonderful summers. When I probed a bit about this response, he spoke ardently about the special nature of the camp and its community of people.

Writing in 1975 about the state of Jewish education in the United States, the late Dr. Walter Ackerman, a capable practitioner and keen observer of American Jewish education, observed that absent an ideal, “efforts at the ‘improvement’ of Jewish education will remain little more than patchwork mechanics which only fall short of any serious mark….” Throughout the twentieth century, much of Jewish education focused on how to make instruction more “school-like.” Better buildings, the latest technology, more classroom hours and the development of new, more attractive course materials seemed the most pressing concerns. But glossy materials, advanced technology and state of the art buildings do not necessarily address the learner’s search for meaning or community.

The 20th century educational thinker Joseph Schwab wrote extensively of four “commonplaces” of education: the learner, the teacher, the subject matter and the milieu. While the subject of study, the teacher and the milieu are, surely, important, the great challenge of education is to meaningfully connect each of these to the experience of the learner. A more learner-centered orientation has, increasingly, come to the fore in Jewish education. Whatever the setting – camp, day school, complementary education program, early childhood center or other context – the question that guides educators is: how will the contemplated experiences relate to the lives of the learners?

This change has expressed itself in a restructuring of complementary Jewish education models from afternoon “schools” to experiential learning centers; many synagogues have dropped the name “school” altogether from the program description. From family Shabbat programs to service learning, from exploration of Jewish texts with an eye to underlying values and their relationship to students’ lives, to personal engagement with Israel, Jewish education is, today, largely about meaning and community. As at camps, students in complementary Jewish education programs have been heard to exclaim: “It’s a great experience because you’re learning while you’re having fun;” or “it gave me a sense of how a bunch of kids can get together and benefit the world.”

The shift from school-like classrooms to learner-focused experiences – in class and beyond – is the real breakthrough in Jewish education. It is a breakthrough that portends well for Jewish learning and living. “And you shall teach your children diligently” is not about a particular setting or instructional program: it is about connecting with the hearts and minds of successive generations.

One point of view … let’s hear yours.

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.