What’s Going on in Jewish Education? Answers from Leaders in the Field

Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash.

By Paul Bernstein, David Bryfman, Jeremy Fingerman, Erica Frankel, Anna Hartman, Miriam Heller Stern, and Susan Wachsstock

We’re now in the new Jewish year and the new academic year – moments when we often feel a natural “newness” and “excited anticipation.” Many people, however, feel like the wheels of life just keep turning without any real change marking one day to the next. But for Jewish educators, the rapid, unexpected transition to virtual learning and engagement last spring has in fact culminated in this moment, in which many of them do feel like they are embarking on something new. This current Jewish year and school year were ones they planned for and gave deep thought to in new and certainly unprecedented ways.

With this in mind, we again share insight below from each of our fields – Early Childhood Education, Part-Time Jewish Education, Day Schools, Jewish Camp, Teen Engagement and Education, and College Engagement and Education. Before we share those below, here are the overarching themes that emerged from our reflections:

1. Educators are harnessing and experimenting with digital platforms in new ways. They are not merely taking previous in-person programs or curriculum and delivering that exact same material online now. Rather, they are unafraid to experiment with this technology to ensure it is a force for good and an effective platform for developing meaningful relationships, experiences, and community. 

2. The last six months have affirmed that Jewish learning can play an important, even vital, role in people’s lives. Demand for Torah study and other educational offerings shows that people want these opportunities especially at difficult times in life. Some look to Jewish learning for deeply personal reasons. Others look at these learning experiences as ways to create or strengthen a support network of peers. Whatever the reason, Jewish education is part of many people’s lives right now.

3. We cannot discuss peoples lives today, and the role of Jewish education in those lives, without discussing mental health. Jewish educators are playing critical roles in supporting their learners in this regard and in creating and delivering programming with mental health and wellness in mind. There is a recognition by many in the field that Jewish educators should be trained and equipped to address this area. This role of educators connects to the belief that Jewish education and engagement must offer something relevant and of value – such as supporting learners’ mental health – to people’s lives.

Early Childhood Education
Update from Anna Hartman, Director, Paradigm Project, and Director of Early Childhood Excellence, Jewish United Fund

In the context of the pandemic, with so many schools engaged in remote learning and colleges trying to curb social gatherings, America’s youngest learners and their families may be today’s luckiest citizens.

Across the country, early childhood programs remain open, even in places where elementary schools are closed. Whats more, using the metrics of connection, love, and laughter, Jewish early childhood centers across North America are truly thriving. Families needing full-day care have been back in these programs for as many as 12 weeks, and families seeking fewer hours have been slowly but surely returning.

Nature continues to be a gift to reopening, keeping children safe outdoors, but the wildfires out west and the creep toward winter in the heartland and east coast mean that adjustments will need to be made.

A steady rebuilding of enrollment will be a key goal for centers over the months and years to come. An overall decrease in demand has had its advantages, mitigating the stress of a parallel reduction in the supply of faculty members. In certain cities, numerous teachers have taken jobs in home-based learning pods run by small groups of families. In others, teachers’ overwhelming concerns about returning have caused entire schools to delay reopening or close altogether. Enrollment has been a game of musical chairs, with families relocating, altering plans based on their evolving comfort levels, or switching schools due to COVID-related changes in policies and reopening plans.

Part-Time Jewish Education
Update from Miriam Heller Stern, PhD, National Director and Associate Professor, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Education

Engaging Families in Part-Time Education: Time in vs. Time Off

On the Sunday before Rosh Hashana, my Facebook feed was peppered with images of smiling Jewish educators greeting lines of cars, handing out colorful Jewish DIY packages. “Welcome back!” they cheered as parents and children pulled up one by one for a masked elbow bump and a gift bag.

These joyful images are snapshots of Jewish belonging. Families may be overwhelmed by the prospect of “signing up for another zoom.” Membership numbers and religious school registrations are down in many places. But here is the good news: families are signing up for socially distanced family Havdalah and Friday afternoon Shabbat sing-along for K-2 online; they are lining up to receive theirSukkot-at-Home Boxes;” they are picking up the phone when the educator calls them just to see how they are. And yes, they are logging on for digital learning that connects them to one another and helps them do Jewish at home

Some parents are saying “we are just taking a year off.” Noted psychotherapist and author Dr. Daniel Siegel writes about the importance of “Time in” – a mindfulness tool that plugs us into a sense of calm integration through reflection – rather than “time out” or “time off.” Time off is associated with disconnection; time in is a way of connecting our brains and hearts. Education directors who are calling home, delivering challah and books, creating a Calendly link to chat – are finding a ready audience for “time in.” Like starting a mindfulness practice, educators who are inviting learners to ease back in with attention to depth and mental health, but in smaller bites, are reconnecting learners and their parents to Jewish education.

Congregations and educational centers that are the conduit for bringing Jewish ritual, reading and relationship home are giving families what they need and crave right now: a sense of community and connection, a pathway to resilience. 

Day Schools
Update from Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools

In Jewish day schools and yeshivas, learning continues to be meaningful, innovative, and inclusive. As schools planned for reopening, the thought and care put into the health and well-being of students, faculty and staff resulted in even stronger communities. We observed incredible resilience and radical flexibility in the face of much uncertainty

This school year presents daily new challenges. School leaders are relying heavily on the network of their peers, asking each other questions, from handling arrivals and dismissals, to how to engage in “concurrent teaching” – some students in class, others remote. In many ways, it is easier now to be open and ask for help. No one has it all “figured out.” 

Leaders and educators are using this opportunity to reimagine school, not only for this year. For many, the disruption has allowed for consequential discussions on flipped learning, use of technology, supporting emotional health, individualized learning, the length of the school day, approaches to parent communication, and more. These conversations will long outlast the current pandemic.

Perhaps the most poignant lesson to emerge is the fundamental understanding of the role teachers play in creating a vibrant community. We all know that our educators do much more than teach a subject – they build connections with our children to Judaism, to learning, and to their community. Faculty, true front-line heroes, have become role models of resilience, flexibility, and hope.  

Educators are likely less well-rested than usual, they may be nervous about their health and their family, and they grieve the loss of many trusted teaching tools. And still, they show up smiling under their masks, exuding love of learning despite the barriers – and they do it to provide the nurturing, warm learning community in which children can grow, learn, and thrive

Summer Camp
Update from Jeremy Fingerman, CEO, Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC)

Beyond Time and Place

Jewish camp is an active laboratory providing an incredible platform for people to grow and change and try new things. Jewish camp is also an effective launchpad catalyzing individuals to create impact beyond camp, onto campuses, into Jewish communities, and even to the broader world. Leading these efforts this summer, Jewish day and overnight camp professionals continue to display incredible resilience, creativity, determination, and adaptability to help navigate through these unsettled and disruptive times.  

We’ve been inspired by camp leaders who creatively implemented both socially distant in-person programs safely at the many day camp that were able to open for at least part of the summer season, and compelling forms of summer engagement through virtual community-building. Especially in the realm of Jewish education and engagement, this summer camp communities came together as virtual laboratories and launchpads to showcase new approaches to connect and inspire, reimagining camp beyond boundaries of time and place.  

In reality, COVID has forced a reduction in year-round staff and in resources available to address these growing opportunities.  To help meet the significant need now and for the future, Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) partnered with Mosaic United and Israel’s Ministry for Diaspora Affairs to launch the “Jewish Camp@Home” initiative. We are offering all Jewish camps their own customizable Mobile App, allowing them to engage with their campers at home throughout the year. We are also equipping and supporting camps with customized, high-quality digital educational content, whether from Israel or from camps, through our brand-new site, experienceshuk.org. We hope to replicate elements of the camp bubble by creating safe ways for campers to engage each other to cultivate connection and inspire intrinsically motivated learning. 

With creative use of technology, our field will continue to be a source of radiance and light for tens of thousands of children, teens, young adults and their families. In doing so, we will deepen our relationships and connections to each other – beyond time and place. 

Update from Susan Wachsstock, Chief Program Officer, The Jewish Education Project

The sound of the Shofar calls us to hear and to take stock of our lives. Whether it is symbolic of crying or a trumpet it is a call to attention. At its core it is a call to reflect. The moment of the shofar blast is tenuous – a moment harkening back and looking ahead, of sounding outward and looking inward. The symbolism is apt for reflecting on the teen landscape – the cup is both half empty and half full

Teens have started their school year without the normal patterns of social life or activity. While some students are attending school in-person or hybrid, the normal routine for freshman, sophomore, junior or senior year is simply not normal. (And yet, college applications are due without campus visits, and all other pre-college pressures still stand.) The youth serving organizations are leveraging the best of a digitally native generation to build community online and to foster teen led and inspired engagement opportunities. At the same time small, socially distant, outdoor experiences are emerging. 

Through these digital and in-person moments, teens are deeply engaged in the broader national conversations about our nations future with particular attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. They are seeking Jewish entry points into this conversation and the youth professionals they work with are supporting them in this effort. These passionate and tireless youth professionals continue to engage and empower our teens and yet they cannot replace the fundamental aspects of adolescence that continue to be thwarted by the limitations of in-person engagement. (It’s hard to have your first kiss if you can’t be in the same private space as your crush.) The mental health of this generation was tenuous before COVID, as we head into month six of the pandemic, considerable attention is focused on ensuring the mental health and wellness of our teens. 

And, while immersed in the present, our teens and the youth organizations that serve them are looking to the future – to the time when they can gather and explore. The recent launch of RootOne, a new initiative designed to radically increase teen travel to Israel, is perhaps the best example of looking past this moment to summer of 2021. RootOne’s program partners – BBYO, NCSY, Ramah, URJ and USY – are all looking forward to immersive experiences to re-engage, and some might say heal, the teens living in this moment.

College Students
Update from Erica Frankel, AVP for Jewish Experience and Director of the Meyerhoff Center at Hillel International

Last week Rabbi Dan Epstein of Hillel at George Washington University emailed me in all caps. He had launched applications earlier that afternoon for Hillel’s Jewish Learning Fellowship (JLF) – a 10-week cohort based, pluralistic Torah study seminar – and he had received sign ups from 43 students … in three hours. “I think this indicates a great demand for Jewish learning,” he wrote. 

When Hillel moved JLF online last spring, we anticipated we would see attrition. After all, most college students were scrambling to move home; they were “Zoomed out” from their university course load, and managing an onslaught of new emotional, social, and economic challenges. To our surprise, every single campus completed the program.

Watching them go from tired, disconnected, depressed-sounding, to smiling, energized and connected to one another at the end of a session is just amazing,” marveled a colleague at Hillel at Stanford, “I don’t know how we would be helping our students grow right now were it not for Torah.”

Today nearly 4,000 students are enrolled in JLF at over 230 schools. Our network of educators remains committed to cultivating a love of Jewish study, now virtually.

Take Rabbi Melissa Simon at North Carolina Hillel, who spent the summer empowering her entire team to become teachers. This made it possible to expand Torah study to students at the smaller schools they serve, like Appalachian State, while maintaining the steady presence of an educator in turbulent times.

Young Jews are clamoring for meaning, friendship, and community. They will hungrily participate in the study of Torah if invited through a warm, giving relationship. Even as our classroom shifts, from the quad to the Zoom room, the demand for Jewish learning endures.