When Jewish Learning Meets Social Networks: A 21st Century Approach to Education

[This post is part 2 of a series on the Senior Jewish Educator and Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative; part 1 can be found here.]

by Josh Miller

Over recent decades, demographic reports on Jewish life have indicated declining numbers of young Jews choosing to opt into Jewish life. This phenomenon is especially notable among teens, college students and twenty-somethings. In response to these concerning trends, Jewish innovators across the country have developed a wide array of new programs and initiatives targeting these age cohorts.

For those funders interested in supporting efforts with the potential to reverse the demographic trends, a persistent challenge is to identify strategies that provide both breadth and depth. At the Jim Joseph Foundation, we are following the progress of a number of efforts designed to address this very issue. Three specific models – implemented by Hillel, Moishe House, and Jewish Student Connection (formerly Jewish Student Union) – are producing impressive results by deploying innovative Jewish educators within social networks.

Examples of Models that Work

Through a pilot program in which senior level Jewish educators work closely with student interns, Hillel has brought meaningful Jewish learning experiences to many more students by leveraging existing campus networks and cultivating one-on-one relationships. The recently released Two Year Evaluation Summary Report of Hillel’s Senior Jewish Educators and Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative and accompanying Case Study by the Monitor Institute document the results of this work. These two reports also indicate that during the past seven years since Hillel began expanding its broader peer-to-peer engagement strategy to a network that now includes 62 campuses, student involvement across the nation has increased from 35 to 48 percent.

Post-college, Moishe House has developed a parallel approach to engage 20-something young adults through Jewish learning experiences hosted in the homes of their young adult peers. Similar to Hillel, Moishe House’s strategy achieves both breadth and depth by deploying a small group of talented Jewish educators who train and empower residents in 51 Moishe Houses around the world to offer learning experiences to their friends.

And in the teen space, Jewish Student Connection has developed a model for Jewish teen education that is advancing the Jewish journeys of high school-aged teens. Jewish Student Connection’s approach is to build a network of Jewish culture clubs in public and private high schools that are guided by full-time Jewish educator-advisors who focus their attention on building one-on-one relationships with participants. Unlike other Jewish education offerings for teens, their network of 65 school-based clubs meets conveniently on their high school campuses and require no membership or up front commitment.

What can the successes of these three organizations – Hillel, Moishe House and Jewish Student Connection – teach us about how we might achieve the ambitious goal of enriching the lives of the majority of Jewish teens, college students and young adults with meaningful, ongoing Jewish learning experiences?

Achieving Breadth of Reach

Independent evaluations of these organizations indicate that they are reaching participants from diverse Jewish backgrounds. In each case, between one-half to two-thirds of survey respondents fit the profile of having “weak” or “moderate” Jewish backgrounds. To penetrate this market of harder-to-engage young Jews, the organizations utilize strategies designed to appeal to a broad range of potential participants, regardless of their previous Jewish experiences:

  • Nearly all recruitment happens through personal invitations. As Sam Abrams, Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer explained, friends can have profound influence on each others’ behaviors. Driven by this understanding, each of these programs is built on a model that leverages existing social networks rather than attempting to draw participants to events where they may not know people.
  • Programs are offered in familiar, secular spaces where young people live, learn and congregate: on campus, in their classrooms and dorms, at local cafés, and inside living rooms of their homes and apartments.
  • No previous Jewish knowledge is required. Each of these organizations cultivates a culture that welcomes Jewish participants regardless of their background and level of Jewish education.
  • None of these programs is built around a membership model. Flexible offerings make it possible for participants to be involved at different levels of intensity, depending on their interest and availability. This approach makes it easier for newcomers to “test” the experience before deciding to become more deeply involved.

Fostering Jewish Learning and Growth

Evaluations of Hillel, MoisheHouse and Jewish Student Connection demonstrate that participants value experiences that are meaningful, substantive learning opportunities. Participants from all Jewish backgrounds – whether strong or weak – experienced measurable Jewish growth as a result of ongoing participation. Although they serve different age cohorts, Hillel, Moishe House and Jewish Student Connection rely upon similar core strategies for delivering Jewish learning:

  • At the heart of each of these educational programs are talented, experienced, and trained Jewish educators. They are authentic Jewish personalities and role models for Jewish living. As my colleague Renee Rubin Ross described in a recent blog post, this is a “different kind of educator – one who innovatively combines knowledge of Jewish text, strong teaching ability, and experience building communities and relating to others.”
  • The learning offered is highly interactive, focusing on the issues that are most relevant to the participants’ lives. As Jon Woocher framed it in his recent article in the Journal of Jewish Education, these 21st century educators are providing a Jewish context through which young people can grapple with the fundamental question of how to “live more meaningful, purposeful, and fulfilling human lives.”
  • The Jewish educators who work for Hillel, Moishe House and Jewish Student Connection are experts in relationship-based engagement. They spend the bulk of their time building one-on-one relationships with young Jews, teaching in small group settings, and training young people to use similar strategies when engaging their peers.

Advancing the Conversation

The three organizations discussed here are by no means the only pioneers achieving both breadth and depth through new approaches to Jewish engagement and education. What has caught the attention of the Jim Joseph Foundation is how these three organizations are operating at a scale that reaches tens of thousands of diverse participants across multiple communities. And we are impressed that their evaluation findings clearly demonstrate that Jewish learning outcomes are being achieved.

We welcome a dialogue with other funders and practitioners who are also exploring strategies to achieve both breadth and depth in Jewish learning. Sharing lessons learned and best practices will advance the field and ensure that the most successful models are adapted and scaled.

Josh Miller is a Senior Program Officer for the Jim Joseph Foundation, which seeks to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young North American Jews. To read more about Hillel’s Senior Jewish Educator/Campus Entrepreneur Initiative read the case study by the Monitor Institute, Leveraging Social Networks for Student Engagement, and the Summative Evaluation Report based on research conducted by Research Success Technologies and Ukeles Associates.

cross-posted at Jim Joseph Foundation Blog