Why Jewish Education Doesn’t Suck

[The following remarks are adapted from the speech given by Dr. David Bryfman at the ceremony for the Helen Diller Family Awards for Excellence in Jewish Education, an initiative of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, on May 6, 2019.]

A few months ago, after the announcement of my appointment as the CEO of The Jewish Education Project I was approached by a prominent Jewish newspaper for an email interview. They wanted to send me a series of questions for me to answer. Of course, I agreed.

Here were some of the questions:

“We frequently hear laments about the problems facing Jewish educators – too little money, too few competent teachers, too little interest on the part of students. What do you see as the main challenge of Jewish education as you start your new job?”

And …

“What is the biggest mistake that Jewish schools and Jewish educators are making?”

And my personal favorite:

“Is Jewish education, especially at the elementary school and high school level, a lost cause?”

Now admittedly not all of the questions posed to me were so negative, but objectively I can also surmise that none of them were actually positive. I looked at the questions, read them and reread them and then basically wrote the responses that included the overwhelmingly optimistic message that I wanted to convey. The interview was received pretty well, and a few people even commended me afterwards that they were appreciative that I had a focused and positive message instead of offering a vision of doom and gloom.

Believe me I am not trying to pick a fight with the reporter. They can and should ask me what they want. More importantly, their questions should reflect things that they believe their readers feel and want to know more about.

Nevertheless, I was, and still am a bit shocked and even a bit upset by the questions. But I was not angry about the questions. I was disappointed about what has transpired in Jewish education that has got us to a point when this reporter was basically asking me (in the language of our youth today):

Why does Jewish education suck?

Or, if I was to take this at all personally:

Why on earth would you want to be responsible for something that basically sucks?

I want to better explain why I reluctantly and begrudgingly understand the reporter’s questions – and even more importantly tell you why I think this reporter also got it all wrong. From where I stand, this is possibly the most exciting time ever to be engaged in Jewish education. There are many factors I could cite that lead me to make such a statement. One incredible fact is that today there are probably more Jews involved in Jewish learning than at any other time in history. The problem for this reporter, and perhaps so many others, is that the Jewish learning taking place might not look or feel like the Jewish learning they have are used to.

For centuries, the purpose of Jewish education rested on the belief that if we teach our children just enough Jewish knowledge and skills then they will continue to live Jewish lives and raise their children in Jewish homes. The reporter asked their questions because they were expressing that the old mode of Jewish education is broken for many American Jews.

What the reporter, and many other pundits and members of the public do not realize is that Jewish education today is not just about the transmission of knowledge and skills. It is not about ensuring that the next generation of Jews looks exactly like the one that came before it. It is not about even about creating more Jews, or stronger Jewish institutions.

In 2019 Jewish education is about empowering Jews to be the people that they are supposed to be. For Millennials and members of Gen Z, Jewish education is about transforming souls. The task of the 21st century Jewish educator is to provide learners with an experience that makes Jewish life meaningful and relevant for the Jews of today and tomorrow.

In my view, Jewish educators have no choice but to adapt to these changing times. Education is the most powerful tool to make this transformation possible. Jewish education must help people struggle with the questions that really matter to them – and not to us – in order to remain resonant. It is no longer a viable proposition to offer a Jewish education that strives to make better Jews, stronger Jewish institutions or a more numerous Jewish people. Jewish education must enable human beings to become the best versions of themselves and help build stronger communities. And one that empowers them to make this world a better place. That is something that I believe Jews will choose.

When we do Jewish education right, we will not fail. We know that we are empowering our learners to be not just the wonderful Jews that they are today, but also the Jews of tomorrow.

But with all of that being said I must return to one thing that doesn’t change. Despite our desire to ensure that Jewish education will impact the future of the Jewish people and the world as a whole – at its core the educational process must continue to be about the here and now. That moment in time when the educator and the learner connect and where the true magic of Jewish education happens.

David Bryfman is the Chief Innovation Officer and incoming CEO at The Jewish Education Project.

The 2019 Helen Diller Family Awards for Excellence in Jewish Education were given to Jonathan Ferris (The Brandeis School of San Francisco), Daniel Schindelman Schoen (Wilderness Torah), and Frances Wittman-Rosenzweig (Congregation Emanu-El Preschool).