Two Contrarian Thoughts about Growth in Challenging Times

by Dr. Eli Gottlieb

I’ve been reading this series with great interest. It’s generated some provocative analyses and creative suggestions. But it’s also left me with a nagging doubt that I’ve been struggling to put into words. What it comes down to, I think, is an intuitive resistance to the terms in which the debate has been cast. It would be perverse to argue that the economic crisis has not put enormous pressure on our communal structures. But I am not sure that the challenges we are facing are fundamentally different from challenges we’ve faced before or challenges we’ll have to face again.

We Jews (especially we professional Jews) have a penchant for crisis rhetoric and self-dramatization. We’re the ever-vanishing people, the last remnant, perched forever at the edge of the abyss. But we also happen to be the safest, wealthiest, and arguably even the best-educated generation of Jews ever to have walked the planet. Given our history of persecution and wandering, perhaps that’s not saying very much. But maybe there are sufficient grounds here for us to pause before allowing the language of decline to frame our thinking.

So here, free of charge and worth exactly what you paid for them (these are challenging times, after all), are two contrarian thoughts about “growing Jewish education in challenging times.”

1. Scarcity is a state of mind

Yes, these are challenging times. But are they more challenging than other times? And if so, in what particular ways? Undoubtedly, there are significantly fewer philanthropic dollars floating around in 2010 than there were in 2004. But money, like time, is always a finite resource. It doesn’t become any less finite when there’s more of it around. The decisions with which educational leaders are faced today may differ in degree from decisions with which we were faced a few years ago. But they don’t differ in kind.

It is the responsibility of educational leaders, at all times and in all places, to set clear priorities and maximize resources. Fuzziness about goals, wishful thinking, and timidity in the face of changing circumstances are just as damaging in fat years as in thin. Indeed, they may be even more so, due to the magnitude of lost opportunities.

I don’t want to suggest that we are living in the best of all possible worlds. Nor is this a naïve call to accentuate the positive. I’m suggesting, instead, that we do exactly what educational leaders are always called to do: Take a sober look at our aspirations and capacities, and make well-informed, creative choices about where to go and how to get there.

Advice this general and prosaic may sound as if it’s far removed from the genuinely huge challenges with which the Jewish community’s educational systems are currently faced. But it is only by stepping back to consider our situation in less apocalyptic terms, I believe, that we are likely to make real progress. Framing our conversation in terms of scarcity and decline leads us to focus on what we lack. Framing it in terms of what we might yet do helps keep us focused on existing strengths and emerging opportunities.

2. What’s the big idea?

The other thing that’s been bugging me is the scope of our conversations about the future of Jewish education. We talk about the challenges of the next few years rather than the next few decades. We discuss sometimes with great creativity and imagination – how to optimize the existing machinery (schools, camps, adult education programs, Israel trips, and so on). But we rarely take the time to articulate in any detail the kinds of Jewish flourishing that all this tinkering is supposed to support. To paraphrase the early twentieth-century economist, Joseph Schumpeter, we plan too much and think too little.

Our greatest challenge, I believe, is neither lack of funds nor lack of personnel (though we certainly could use more of both). It is a lack of ideas. Not ideas for this or that new program, but compelling ideas about the kinds of Jewish life that are worth living and the forms of learning and participation that will make them possible.

There’s comfort, perhaps even a strange kind of self-satisfaction, in how we currently conceive our educational challenges. It’s about doing this or that concrete thing to improve yield or make the process more effective. Utilize this resource, develop that synergy, and our situation will improve. But, as the Biblical prophets labored to teach us, hard times demand of us more than mechanical solutions. They call us to challenge our fundamental ideas about the good life, our conceptions of communal flourishing, and the relevance of received notions and institutions to contemporary lives. Indeed, the great gift of hard times is precisely that they make us uncomfortable. I fear, though, that we may be missing an opportunity to turn this discomfort into profound thinking and learning.

What we need more than anything are inspiring visions of the Jewish life well lived, of what a vital Jewish community ought to feel like from the inside. We need to think deeply and broadly about what it is we are educating for. Collectively and individually, we don’t do nearly enough thinking of this kind. We are far more articulate about means than we are about ends. When pushed to say something about our intentions beyond this or that specific programmatic goal, we stutter.

The kind of growth I’d most like to see in Jewish education is growth in the power and depth of the ideas that animate our work. Growth of this kind is not only possible in challenging times; it is precisely what challenging times demand.

And how can we grow ideas? By combining three key ingredients: minds, time and fertile learning environments. Bring together our best minds, give them time to think and idea-friendly places to think in, and the depth and reach of the ideas they’ll produce will far exceed anything we could ever hope to produce individually, piecemeal and on the fly. Instead of reducing investments in professional development and becoming so outcome-oriented that our most promising educational leaders are even more overworked than before the current economic crisis, we should be doing all we can to give them tools, the time, and the space to think.

Dr. Eli Gottlieb, is Vice-President, Mandel Foundation-Israel and Director of the Mandel Leadership Institute.

This post is from the series Growing Jewish Education in Challenging Times.