For its own sake
What we’re learning about Jewish learning
How can nonprofit organizations similarly understand the lives of their leaders? And how can the Jewish philanthropic community gain insight into which new projects should be prioritized for investment? The Jewish Learning Collaborative has learned that the answers lie in offering staff, volunteers and stakeholders an Amazon-like breadth of options about Jewish learning and then paying attention to what they choose.
Companies like Amazon and Instagram learn about their users’ preferences and habits by offering practically every product and piece of content under the sun. A quick look at your purchase history can provide a pretty accurate snapshot of your needs, values and priorities. Travel inspiration, toddler clothes, diamond rings, career advice — these searches and purchases give real insight into where we are and what we’re going through.
How can nonprofit organizations similarly understand the lives of their leaders? And how can the Jewish philanthropic community gain insight into which new projects should be prioritized for investment? The Jewish Learning Collaborative (JLC) has learned that the answers lie in offering staff, volunteers and stakeholders an Amazon-like breadth of options about Jewish learning and then paying attention to what they choose.
The Jewish Learning Collaborative is an education startup that offers customized 1:1 Jewish learning to employees and board members of Jewish organizations. Like a matchmaking service, JLC staff help each learner identify their own interests, goals and learning styles and recommend educators from the JLC database that match their unique needs. The learner and their teacher then collaboratively choose topics and a style and begin a professional and personal learning journey. JLC educators have a wide range of backgrounds and approaches, and all have at least two years of post-undergraduate Jewish learning credentials, are warm and easy to connect with on Zoom, and share a non-judgmental approach.
For two years, the JLC has been listening to more than 275 learners at every staff and board level at 17 organizations throughout the Jewish community. When learning happens for learning’s sake, and when the journey is self-determined, we can understand a lot by noticing what leaders choose to learn and why. Five distinct profiles have emerged that tell the story of the diverse backgrounds and interests within our Jewish leadership. And our early learnings can inform all of us who are visioning, building and funding Jewish organizations.
- The Wrestling Champ seeks out Jewish wisdom while wrestling with something big in their personal lives. When preparing for an upcoming marriage, navigating the newness of parenthood or facing grief or chronic illness, wrestlers turn to their educators to translate Jewish wisdom into practical tools that will help them navigate major and ordinary joys and challenges.
- The Walk-the-Walker “talks the talk,” but experiences imposter syndrome when the time comes to engage with Jewish content. They worry that they don’t know as much as a Jewish professional or board member should, and they’re seeking skills to feel confident using Jewish text and wisdom in their day-to-day roles.
- The Identity Integrator is reluctant to bring their full self to the Shabbat service or conference room table. For learners who are Jews of color, belong to the LGBTQIA+ community or hold other identities, traditional Jewish learning can feel like suppressing one part of the self to nurture another. Learning content of their choosing with an approach they’ve developed makes Jewish content accessible through a lens that affirms and celebrates their intersectional identity.
- The Deep Diver already has a strong Jewish learning practice and seeks an opportunity to “geek out” on their favorite piece of Talmud or Torah. These learners love nitty gritty nuance and often select educators who share their unique passions. Lots of Deep Divers hold roles as Jewish educators or program designers and come to the JLC for a chance to step back, relax and enjoy being in the learner’s seat for a change.
- The Newish to Jewish learner works at a Jewish organization and does not identify as Jewish. They come to the JLC for variations on “Judaism 101” to help them navigate a Jewish job. They express anxiety, never wanting to make assumptions, offend their Jewish colleagues or burden them with the task of explaining Jewish concepts. They lead with the topics that are most pertinent to their roles and develop familiarity with Jewish content in a welcoming, judgment-free setting.
These profiles show us that Jewish leaders are lifelong learners who find value in Jewish conversation with a trained educator. From entry-level employees to C-suite executives and board members, our learners share the deeply human experiences of curiosity, a desire for connection and understanding, and too often, a fear of a perceived lack of Jewish knowledge, of not belonging, or of saying the wrong thing. Leaders are eager to make space for their full selves at work and in the boardroom and to self-determine their paths of growth. They want to initiate conversations and ask questions. They want to think deeply and build on millennia of experience and wisdom.
And the information we are gathering is of critical value to the philanthropic community. Many funders in the Jewish community seek grantees that are growth minded and will sustain a future pipeline of Jewish thought leaders and innovators. An organization that invests in ongoing learning and exploration for their leaders is demonstrating their values and stating that they are a conscientious, strategic and forward thinking entity.
The learnings emerging from JLC are only beginning to perculate, and will include the results of experiments about how to scale personalalized learning experiences and how to tap into and sustain a robust talent pool of freelance Jewish educators. The philanthropists who fund JLC care about a vibrant and well-equipped leadership for Jewish organizations, and that’s why four of our seven funders offer their own staff and lay leaders the opportunity to learn with JLC educators.
This early data can show us how to better serve our boards and staff. The insights we’ve gleaned can inspire us to do more for the simple sake of doing and take note of the patterns that arise when people exercise agency.
Rabbi Ana Bonnheim is the founding executive director of Jewish Learning Collaborative.