Transforming Congregational Education: A Paradigm Shift

Gleanings Spring 2016
Gleanings Spring 2016; volume 3, issue 1

By Dr. Bill Robinson

[This article excerpts and expands on ideas put forth at a conference held this past autumn at JTS, whose proceedings are captured in the most recent issue of Gleanings, including articles by Dr. Rob Weinberg, Cantor Adina Frydman, Rabby Hayim Herring, and Peter Geffen.]

Let’s face it – we’ve been at this for over 20 years! Much good has transpired, yet much still remains to be achieved. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider how we should go about the work of transformation, if we want to finally realize our shared goal of profound and powerful education within congregations.


In the early 1990’s, both the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE) and the Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE) were launched, arguably marking the beginning of over two decades of work to transform congregational education. Since that time, we have witnessed the sparking and spreading of important educational inventions in the congregation, such as family education, retreats and Shabbaton, integration of online resources, and project-based learning, among others. More recently, working in collaboration with over 100 congregations, ECE and The Jewish Education Project in NY even learned how to rapidly bring these inventions to scale. [Please note that the author was a member of CIJE and The Jewish Education Project, and is now at JTS.]

Yet, while participating congregations in these initiatives certainly improved the educational experiences for their children, teens and families, with minor exceptions they did not substantially transform the whole educational model in such a way that it would anywhere near rival the impact of day schools, camps or Israel trips. The same can be said of many other change initiatives (some focused on other “supplementary” spaces for education) that arose over the years in federations and central agencies for Jewish education (such as NESS in Philadelphia), in individual institutions (such as the JCC in Manhattan’s Jewish Journey Project), through entrepreneurs (such as the Jewish Kids Group in Atlanta), and in other national agencies (such as JTS’s Reframe project).

Excluding a few notable outliers, what all of these initiatives have in common is that their educational work has remained mostly separate from the actual life of the congregation, and they often intentionally focused on life outside of the congregation. This was never the goal of many of these initiatives, notably ECE, which was founded upon a vision of transforming whole congregations into communities of meaning and learning. Yet, given the direction of funding and for other practical reasons, the focus shifted over the years. Many of us have forgotten in practice a simple truth that Isa Aron, the founder of ECE, conveyed a long time ago.

Education happens best – actually education only truly works – when it exists in real and tactile relation with a lived experience toward which one is being educated. Learners need to see and actually experience a community of adults engaged in a serious and joyful practice of Jewish living in order to make meaningful and relevant the Jewish education they are undertaking. To appropriate a term from the sociologist Peter Berger, the life of the congregation makes plausible the vision of Jewish living toward which they are being educated (or enculturated). In other words, education does not work if the life toward which one is being educated is not being regularly and powerfully experienced by the learners. (Recently, in these pages, Rabbi Eddie Shostak quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks saying this about the relation of day school education to the life of the synagogue; thus even more so about congregational education.)

The decades-long history of congregational education change efforts is haunted by the continuing challenge to integrate the educational experience with that of the congregational life. It is arguable but not unfair to describe its history as trying to take “good” educational practices and adapt them in to the congregation, without focusing the outcomes of those educational experiences toward the lived life of adults in the congregation as seen by the kids and teens. First, by not designing education for the life of the congregation and its own vision of itself, as embodied most notably by the rabbi, it is no surprise that educational change efforts often met resistance from the rabbi and the wider lay leadership of the congregation. Second, if the vision of education is not that of the life of the congregation (assuming that the “school” actually has a robust vision) then the question of the purpose of Jewish education – not a strange question to the minds of the children and teens – remains unclear and uncompelling. As a child or teen, what am I being educated for?

Now, let’s bring to the forefront a major challenge for congregational education – the life of most congregations is no longer of compelling interest to today’s teens and children. This is different than saying congregations are dysfunctional; it is actually rare that institutions are dysfunctional for any long period of time. They are actually very functional though not everyone may appreciate the nature of their function. Over time, less and less people may find value in the outcomes that they function toward. An anthropologist spending a month in a typical American congregation and its Hebrew school would arguably come to the conclusion that the focus of congregational life was Shabbat prayer service (albeit Shabbat evening for Reform congregations and Shabbat morning for Conservative ones). For decades we have long complained of the intense educational focus of congregational schools on training for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Well, it actually makes perfect functional sense that the school would educate toward the Shabbat service, as this has been the cornerstone of the congregational life. The challenge is that Shabbat observance as lived in congregations is less and less compelling for today’s children, teens or young adults, not to forget their parents. They either don’t value the experience compared to all the other priorities of their life, or (often in the case of those raised in Jewish day schools and camps) they don’t find it sufficiently immersive and spiritually moving (a point noted in the earlier piece by Rabbi Shostak.) Notably, many of the latter have found homes in the emergent minyanim.

We need a paradigm shift in how we understand education within congregations, along with the processes through which we seek to transform the focus and thus the impact of congregational education. This begins with sensing the emergence of an evolving, common vision of congregational life, and thus for the education that happens within congregations.


In their essence, congregations share an aspirational vision of covenantal Judaism – of a voluntary community bound together across generations in a web of mutual obligations, inspiring and guiding individual acts of self-expression and tikkun in the world, grounded in a dynamic (sometimes difficult) relationship with the divine.

Each congregation, which aspires to this paradigm, will manifest it somewhat differently; sharing a common vision is not that same as walking lockstep or being reduced to the least common denominator. While one may emphasize prayer, another may stress social justice. (Though we are not talking about congregations that only concern themselves with prayer and only do so on Shabbat. The covenant demands more.) And while each congregation fulfills to different degrees the promise of this vision, they all struggle with it. What congregations have in common, and what arguably distinguishes them from other Jewish institutions both as description and aspiration, is their core being as a covenantal community. Rabbi Sid Schwarz has talked about it as “new paradigm spiritual communities.”

Jewish education within a congregation then is first and foremost education toward living in covenantal community. As a corollary, education does not work if the life toward which one is being educated is not being regularly and powerfully experienced by the learners. To put it another way, borrowing from Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, we not only need text people whose lives are the text that our students read; we also need text communities. Thus, we ask ourselves: What would an educational curriculum for the life of the congregation look like? Following from above, it would focus on the three core aspects of covenantal community:

  1. Building character that strives toward making our world a better place and is guided by Jewish values, practices and stories.
  2. Discovering and wrestling with the divine presence in one’s entire life without the easy and trivial separation of secular and sacred, and how one responds to that call.
  3. Learning the ways in which one accepts and takes upon oneself the yoke of obligation within a community of mutual caring and support.

The last seems particularly lacking in today’s educational curriculum; yet it is arguably the most important. For where else do we experience this and in reflection learn to live it? Despite the power of other forms of educational experience – day school, camp, Israel trips – only in congregations is a voluntary community (particularly of families and intergenerational) to be possibly found in its fullness. As Rob Weinberg, the director of ECE, wrote in this issue of Gleanings, “Congregations provide a ready, active, living Jewish community into which learners can become enculturated so that Jewish learning and living are seamlessly integrated.” Moreover, its potential counter-cultural nature as a voluntary ethical community offers children, teens, adults and families an alternative to our society’s overindulgence in individual sovereignty and consumer narcissism.

A reasonable response to this integration of educational focus and congregational life could be to declaim the decline of congregational life. If a necessity of great congregational education is a vibrant congregational life, then we may be doomed. Yet, the news of congregations’ death has been greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase Mark Twain. Congregations are undergoing a societally-grounded shift that is arguably as great as the one that brought about the growth of the suburban synagogues in the 1950s and 1960s. While many individual synagogues are surely facing existential threats, the congregation itself is not. It has (in one form or another) been with us for two millennia; what it may be facing is a structural transformation. In all such processes there is loss and growth. The question we find important and productive is: Where is the growth taking place?

The vision of covenantal community articulates that which is emergent in congregational life. It may not (yet) be the reality of the majority but it can be found growing and evolving, seeking a foothold in the new soil of communal religious life.

We can find it emerging across a range from independent minyanim to larger urban congregations that are embracing diversity within and breaking down the boundaries between home, synagogue and city, and thus between sacred and secular. It is growing in places that offer people choice in their expression of Judaism, while providing Jewish experiences that deeply matter. There is room for concern, but there is also reason to be optimistic about the future.


The three primary (and still vital) levers for change in congregational education in use over the last two decades have been teacher education, curriculum development, and especially organizational consulting.

As alluded to above, ECE and The Jewish Education Project designed and implemented a new approach to creating scalable change in congregational education. If we to achieve scalable change across the greater NYC area, we realized that we needed to leverage the so far underutilized power of networks and communal norms. We focused on building relations across congregational teams within cohorts. Then, we built relations among congregations in different cohorts. Once a congregational school “graduated” through one of a few alternative formal change processes, they did not graduate from the “coalition of innovating congregations.” Gatherings convened all participating congregations together to share successes and learn from each other’s experiences.

Second, we realized that the a lengthy, vision-first approach to organizational consulting (which many still employ), involving months and months of developing a vision, then designing a program, implementing it and finally evaluating it, led ultimately to implementation burn-out for too many congregations. By the time any signs of success showed themselves, lay leaders and clergy were exhausted and/or ready to move on to other projects. Instead, for congregations entering into the network of “innovating congregations” we flipped the change process – rapidly begin by piloting one of a few exemplary projects that other congregations (often through a lengthy consulting approach) have shown to work, critically and appreciatively reflecting upon that experience, and from there slowly constructing an educational vision for the congregation.

Third, all of this was done within a practical framework adapted from “diffusion of innovation” theory, notably popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. We recognized that congregations took different roles within the communal milieu. Some were radical “innovators,” constantly trying new things; others were “early adapters” who took the best from others and intentionally focused on the how the various educational innovations functioned together. Still others were “late adopters” who watched and waited to see how successful the “early adopters” were. We designed different interventions based on the specific needs and contributions of each group, and we intentionally worked to make visible the value of each innovation. Together, we began to shift communal norms. The observed results included “late adapters” who were able to more and more rapidly change their educational program, and more and more congregations who were able to move successfully from introducing their first innovation to a second and third with substantially less participant burn out.

All told, we learned from the new organizational literature and unleashed the power of networks and communities to influence individual behavior. We were able to move “innovations” that improved the educational experiences of children and teens across 100 congregations. Yet, to actually transform congregational education and to do so on a continental level, we now need to learn from and adapt another approach to change (on top of these others) – called collective impact.

The approach of collective impact involves 5 key elements:

  1. All participants have a common agenda for change including a shared understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed upon actions.
  2. Collecting data and measuring results consistently across all the participants ensures shared measurement for alignment and accountability.
  3. A plan of action that outlines and coordinates mutually reinforcing activities for each participant.
  4. Open and continuous communication is needed across the many players to build trust, assure mutual objectives, and create common motivation.
  5. A backbone organisation(s) with staff and specific set of skills to serve the entire initiative and coordinate participating organisations and agencies.

(From “Collective Impact,” John Kania and Mark Kramer, Stanford Social innovation Review, Winter 2011)

Collective impact approaches have been shown to be successful in addressing adaptive, complex challenges (such as city-side educational achievement) that require different actors whose work impacts the problem in question to work together. In this vein, those working to address the urgent challenges facing congregations must think together and coordinate their work with those addressing the challenges of education in congregations. We have discussed this so far from the perspective of education, but given the financial dependency of most congregations on membership that begins with enrollment in the congregational school, the future viability of congregations is just as dependent on the value of the education as education is dependent on the value of the communal Jewish life of congregants.

Second, the collective impact approach illustrates the importance not only of a shared understanding of the problem but the ability to measure results, which only comes out of a common, overarching (even if just implicit) vision of what educational success looks like. Third, the collective action approach also requires ongoing communication that continually builds a sense of shared purpose and inspires increasing action by the initial participants and others. While this may at first glance look like a bunch of people sitting down around a table to design the whole collective impact initiative and then go with it, in practice (especially in our fragmented, autonomous world) this will be an iterative approach that starts with an inkling of new vision and a few coordinated projects, and then only slowly, with stubborn intention and flexibility, evolves to reflect the key elements of a collective action approach.

In this sense, it will resemble as well a social movement approach to change. Unlike community-based situations where collective impact has been most successful, social movements have created change on a continental scale among only loosely-connected actors and within de-coupled systems, which best describe the situation of congregations and congregational education today. The new paradigm will include teacher education, organizational consulting and even curriculum development. Yet, it will do so within a larger change framework that recognizes the vital importance of social networks, communal norms, systemic understandings of congregational change requiring actors (who don’t often) to work collectively, clear and compelling measures of change, ongoing continental-wide communication and an emergent and evolving, shared overarching vision toward which we are all seeking to head.


The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS is dedicated to joining with those who have endeavored in this field for decades and those who are just now designing innovative approaches. We seek to bring together scholars and practioners, those who work primarily on educational issues with those who are engaged in the challenges of congregations writ large. We hope to bring our own expertise in leadership training and the measurement of educational outcomes to bear on these challenges, alongside the expertise of others. As the largest pluralistic graduate school of Jewish education in North America, we will seek to gather together actors from all corners – from across denominations and throughout North America – to weave together a collective approach to realizing a shared, overarching vision of a transformed, vital congregational education embedded within vibrant congregational life.

Last autumn, we brought together thinkers, doers and visionaries from across denominations and throughout North America to inspire an overarching, guiding vision for congregational education. That vision was shared above and in the recent issue of Gleanings. Please share with us your ideas, your questions, and your visionary aspirations for the future of congregational education.

Dr. Bill Robinson is Dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of
The Jewish Theological Seminary.