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

Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash.

By Ben Berger, Paul Bernstein, David Bryfman, Jeremy Fingerman, Anna Hartman, Miriam Heller Stern, Avi Orlow, Susan Wachsstock

We are getting a lot of questions about how our fields within Jewish education are doing at this unique moment. As the pandemic has continued – and the depth of its impact on life becomes more acutely felt – we continue to try and make sense of the effect this has on Jewish education and how our fields continue to adapt. We try to reflect, often in real time, on what we are experiencing, how we can support educators and families, and what the future may look like. We have deeply appreciated the periodic updates about the Jewish communal world from Leading Edge, JPRO, Jews of Color Initiative, Upstart and others, and thought that an update on Jewish education might help people too. As we begin to focus on rebuilding Jewish life during and after the pandemic, we should focus our attention on Jewish education in all of its forms. 

With this in mind, we 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. Some overarching themes emerged from our amalgamated contributions that are first worth reflecting on:

1. Jewish educators have been nothing short of remarkable, not just the ways in which they transformed their in-person learning into on-line environments, but in the ways in which they threw themselves into problem solving, strategizing, and forward thinking at a moment’s notice.

2. The resources necessary to bring about many of these changes have been necessary and high. Federations, foundations, individual donors, and families themselves have stood up to support places of Jewish learning in this time of crisis. But, as the economic impacts of COVID are still only beginning to be felt, it is also clear that many more dollars will need to be raised in order to ensure the long term vibrancy of the diversity of Jewish education.

3.  Whereas once the mandate of many institutions of Jewish learning might have been to continue transmitting Jewish content and knowledge, it has been clear through this pandemic that places of Jewish learning have spent as much time, if not even more, on building and maintaining relationships, concerning themselves with the social and emotional well-being of learners, and creating positive and joyous online Jewish experiences.

Here are insights on how our fields are adjusting to the new normal:

In the words of one director, “As soon as you see the children and your colleagues, the heaviness is lifted off your shoulders and you feel reinvigorated.”

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

As many school districts make plans to physically close their doors this year, early childhood centers seem likely to remain open for in-person learning. This difference recognizes that childcare is crucial for the mental and financial health of families and that when compared to their peers, young children have the most to gain from in-person learning.

Today, enrollment is down across the sector (in many cases because of a deliberate reduction in capacity for health and safety reasons); and many staff members are not returning (especially educators who are older, have health concerns, spend time with local relatives, or have their own school-age children who require supervision as school districts opt for remote learning). However, as many schools re-opened in June and July, this rolling return has helped schools refine safety routines, offered space for individuals to build a sense of comfort in returning, and enabled school communities to renew a sense of trust.

Helping the sector survive is the passion of early childhood educators, whose confidence and resolve have been catalyzed by teachers rapid pivot to online learning, increased coordination and frequency of high-quality professional learning and support, and the optimistic reopening stories recounted by schools that opened for the summer. Some schools have been energized and emboldened to develop new procedures for extended outdoor learning, where the air is fresher. Key funding support has come from local Federations (in partnership with foundations) and the C.A.R.E.S Act; assuming rolling closures occur in the year ahead, this continued support is critical in order to avoid a fate of as many as 40% of America’s childcare centers closing permanently.

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

The Summer of “What if…?”

Directors of education in congregational schools, learning centers and afterschool/Shabbat/Sunday programs have been leaning into their professional networks wisely and generously all summer. A collaborative spirit is animating idea-sharing and brainstorming, fueling renewed energy in the sector of “part-time” Jewish education. Moving online in the spring was exhausting, but the discussions on Facebook, in online conferences and newsletters all summer reveal that educators are looking to use this moment to change the mold and experiment with digital outreach into peoples homes and in smaller gatherings on site.

Here are some “silver lining” opportunities on the horizon:

  • Going digital affords greater opportunities for 1:1 and small group relationship building, for teachers to get to know students individually and for small cohorts to process what texts and ideas mean to them. Individualized instruction in Hebrew language can also be beneficial.
  • With families spending more time at home together, we may see a resurgence of family engagement. Congregations and communities that are reimagining high holiday services may capture new audiences of families who are enjoying connecting at and from home, as a family. 
  • Educators are going to be able to virtually visit each others programs, which is a great way to learn about and adapt successful experiments from one city to another.
  • Some communities are using digital resources like the new La-Briut Health and Wellness curriculum rather than designing their own programs from scratch.
  • As schools in COVID hotspots remain closed, some independent afterschool programs are expanding into full day care and supervision for students while they complete their school studies online. Multi-day programs may increase the likelihood of student connection and provide essential childcare during this time.

The logistical challenges of planning and implementation right now are real. But where leadership teams are working together to create a supportive environment, we are seeing more creative solutions being brought to bear.

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

This Spring, Jewish day schools excelled by offering dynamic remote teaching and learning amid the crisis. Their success demonstrated the power of a full-time Jewish education: strong academics, a life revolving around Jewish values, vibrant community, and passionate support for the social and mental wellness of students, faculty, and families. 

As schools begin to open, administrators and educators have been heroically preparing for a school year that will be like none other. Our schools are committed to opening in-person, if it is safe and appropriate to do so, while being ready for online learning. The shehecheyanu prayer seems apt as we express awe at reaching this point.

  • The student experience has been reimagined, knowing that schedule disruptions are inevitable. Teachers have prepared courageously for effective and innovative in-person and online synchronous and asynchronous education. We recognize the enormous dedication, creativity, and deep commitment shown by teachers and administrators to the day school mission.
  • Schools have taken stock and allocated resources more strategically and creatively. Teams have reimagined what can serve as a classroom, both inside and outside, on campus and in the broader community. Everything – from entryways, cafeterias, playgrounds, and the nurse’s office – has been restructured. New equipment has been purchased and enhancements made, with investments conservatively estimated at $200-800 per student.  
  • As in all times of crisis, creativity and innovation are beacons of hope. To this end, some schools have enlisted under-employed young people to support increased staffing needs. A surge in inquiries from new families who have a new appreciation for the value of Jewish day schools has pushed schools to accommodate as many as possible. 
  • We have seen unprecedented collaboration and shared learning across and within communities in areas such as transportation, medical policies, online pedagogies, and technology. Funding for tuition assistance and other immediate needs, while not enough, has made a difference for schools and families.

There is so much anticipation about schools opening because they matter so much to students and families, as well as to the entire community and our Jewish future. Perhaps because we lived through a time when our physically closed schools remained open in mind, soul, and spirit, the return to our sacred spaces – for however long and in whatever shape that can take – is truly worthy of a shehecheyanu.

Campers and counselors alike yearn to be back together, forging year-round and lifelong relationships. Photo courtesy FJC.

Summer Camp
Update from Jeremy Fingerman, CEO, Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC); Rabbi Avi Orlow, Vice President, Innovation and Education, FJC

Reflecting on summer 2020, we’ve seen not only creative Jewish learning, but the power and emotion of Jewish yearning. With the vast majority of overnight camps not running in person this summer, both campers and counselors (new and returning) and alumni and families (young and old), in the midst of  their sadness, expressed a profound connection to their camp community. Many camps ventured into the world of virtual, bringing the camp-like programming, ruach, and connections to life, about which one parent wrote:

I want to thank you and all the others who worked so hard behind the scenes to bring a Jewish camp experience into our homes… I truly enjoyed listening in the background to what took place today, and seeing my son, engaged, smiling and laughing truly warmed my heart. 

We could talk about the importance of bringing camp into the home, the power of fun, the hyper-intentionality of educational programming, but, in the end, it all comes down to building strong relationshipswith campersbunk mates and their role-modeling counselors.  The yearning is for these meaningful, joyful relationships, forged at camp, which remain durable and long-lasting.  In the words of another grateful parent:

We continue to be so impressed at how the camp team has pivoted and re-created the camp spirit from afar. She loved her amazing counselors and made many new friends. You’ve brought joy back into Zoom for our understandably surly 7th grader. Thank you for that!

As we learn from Rava (Babylonian Rabbi (c. 280 – 352 CE)), close relationships are foundational to our very existence. (Ta’anit 23a) Even online, Jewish camp creates extraordinary relationships that truly last year-round and lifelong. 

An intern at Summer Excelerator, part of the New York Teen Initiative.

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

Cause a little bit of summer is what the whole year is about.  – John Mayer

The notion of living 10 months for 2 months (10 for 2) is ingrained in the camping movement. But it is also a critical frame for Jewish teen education and engagement. While our youth serving organizations work tirelessly all year to empower teens and provide them with meaningful evening and weekend opportunities, the pinnacle of the year is often the teen summer experience (including Israel experiences, other travel programs, and immersive leadership trainings) This spring, the teen landscape pivoted to empower teens to create their own virtual experiences (see BBYO Ondemand, USYfi Summer, Global NCSY, and NFTY Virtual Programming for example) and sought to provide social and emotional outlets for a generation missing out on core life moments – graduations, proms, etc. and this summer. The creativity and dedication demonstrated by youth professionals together with their teens this spring was amplified in a summer when teens sought connection, meaning, and Jewish opportunities. Internships emerged (virtually), volunteer programming sprouted, and teens became self-starters launching businesses, backyard camps or online programs.  

So, what is the state of teen education and engagement? Zoomed out for sure. A desperation for social connection matched with somewhat understandable impatience regarding the situation has emerged with COVID parties and other gatherings. Certainly this raises concerns for the new school year. But at the same time, teens launched service and advocacy programs, actively engaged in efforts to end racism and helped homebound elderly technologically connect to the outside world. They are leaning on each other and using unexpected available time (they also are not on travel programs or at camp) to engage in professional learning. This will be a fall without regional gatherings or traditionally scheduled in person programs, but the teen landscape will continue to innovate to respond to the teens own ideas and needs.

College Students
Update from Rabbi Ben Berger, Vice President of Jewish Education, Hillel International 

To Be Seen

For Hillel, summer is a time or reflection, recuperation, and readying for the year ahead. Despite the obvious challenges of this summer, Hillel remained steadfast in delivering content rooted in our core values. Our Hillel U suite of learning opportunities reached nearly 500 new and continuing professionals. Besides providing content and skill enrichment for those professionals, we model ways they can engage and educate their students year-round. 

The word Re’eh that begins the Torah portion we’ll read this week is often translated as “behold” for poetic effect. The commentator Ibn Ezra reminds us of its true meaning: Moshe saw every individual. Our strategy and tactics point to one clal gadol: learning in this digital age requires a deep commitment to seeing each student. While perhaps cliche, the memeI feel seen has even deeper resonance in Covid times where technology is the primary platform for social interaction, which risks leaving us feeling isolated and anonymous. Indeed, college students who are juggling multiple emotions, are among the most at risk of feeling “unseen.”

Allowing students to feel seen is the animating principle of what we do. Here are 5 ways we create that experience for participants. 1. Prioritizing small groups and cohorts that are ongoing rather than large events, making virtual platforms a space for content delivery and relationship development. 2. We send packages that not only surprise and delight recipients, but that are also closely linked to our learning goals. 3. We connect students to an educator to serve as teacher and mentor; an essential connection under these circumstances. 4. We facilitate learning beyond the screen: walking chevrutas, solo meditation, journaling, etc. 5. We focus on the Torah that has maintained us through generations, recognizing that it remains relevant in the most challenging times.