Worthwhile Change: New Models of Congregational Education

by Anna Marx with Cyd B. Weissman and Rob Weinberg

We’re hearing a lot of talk these days in the Jewish community about new approaches to Hebrew school: relationship building, experiential learning, and alternative models. Terms from the broader educational world have entered the conversation in Jewish education: whole child, learner directed, peer-to-peer learning. Some may wonder, “How much do children really learn in this kind of environment? Don’t you need students sitting at the desk listening to sages at the blackboard for them to really learn?”

Our recent research says: rich and accessible Jewish content is not sacrificed in learning experiences that are relationship-based, co-constructed, and relevant to everyday life. Education can be a great experience for children and families while also being excellent learning.

Some Background

The Jewish Education Project and the Experiment in Congregational Education initiated the Coalition of Innovating Congregations, a group of more than 50 New York congregations, to develop and adapt innovative models of Jewish education. These models look and feel different from traditional Hebrew schools. Coalition congregations are changing the learning experience to consider the “whole learner,” that is, what the learner will know, do, and value as a result of the experience, as well as how much they feel a sense of belonging to their community and the Jewish people.

In order to reach the whole learner, the new models utilize four design principles in their learning experiences:

  1. Learning will be anchored in caring, purposeful relationships
  2. Learning will seek to answer the questions, challenges, and meaning of everyday life
  3. Learning will enable individuals to construct their own meaning through inquiry, problem solving, and discovery
  4. Learning will be content-rich and accessible

(The first three design principles are adapted from Redesigning Jewish Education for the 21st Century.)

The Jewish Education Project and the Experiment in Congregational Education engaged Rosov Consulting to assess how well these design principles were implemented. The 18-month study included 79 observations in 12 synagogues, including Coalition and non-Coalition congregations and innovative and traditional Hebrew school modelsi.

Innovative Learning Models

In their assessments of the 79 observations, the Rosov research team found that Coalition congregations’ alternative models outperformed the traditional Hebrew school models in each design principle.

  • “The four design principles of 21st century whole person learning are being more fully implemented within alternative models for congregation-based Jewish education than in traditional models for congregation-based Jewish education.”

It was perhaps unsurprising to find that Coalition congregations scored higher than other congregations in the first three design principles: relationships, co-construction, and relevance to daily life. After all, these “alternative” models were designed to emphasize these principles. Notably, the study also found that alternative models in Coalition congregations scored higher in the fourth design principle: “Learning will be content-rich and accessible”. This finding indicates that content-rich learning is not sacrificed when children experience powerful Jewish education that utilizes newer design principles.

The Rosov team found three characteristics that worked as “intensifiers” for the design principles; where one or more of these characteristics were employed in the learning, the design principles were more fully implemented.

  1. Real-time learning: takes place in real-time rather than in an artificial setting. For example, families learn about tikkun olam by volunteering in a soup kitchen. See, for example, Temple Emanu-El’s Mitzvah Corps and Temple Beth Sholom’s Gimme 10.
  2. Family activities: treats the family as the learner rather than just the child, sometimes in joint family learning and sometimes in parallel programs. See, for example, Temple Shaaray Tefila’s MASA and Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore.
  3. Near peer activities: grounded in relational elements that connect young people of different ages, and expose younger children to near peer role models; often times older students act as teachers or guides for younger students. See, for example, CSAIR’s Project Chaverim and Village Temple.

Worthwhile Change

Educational leaders, parents and funders should be asking: “Is all this change worthwhile?” In more than five years of work with New York congregations and in our work with Rosov Consulting, we have found that the answer is yes.

Yes because learning can be a better experience for the child. A focus on relationships, co-constructing learning, and seeking answers to everyday questions is possible and real in part-time congregational settings.

Yes because education can be a better experience AND excellent learning. Content-rich learning is not sacrificed in utilizing these design principles. Quite the opposite, the team found content-rich learning to be more prevalent in congregations that also more fully implemented one or more of the other design principles.

Yes because educational principles and practices go hand-in-hand. Congregations providing new models of Jewish education are better implementing the design principles. In part, they demonstrate these principles more fully because they also employ certain educational practices: real-time learning, family activities, and near peer activities.

Yes because redesigning part-time Jewish education is good for our kids. In the end, what may be perceived as “fluff,” turns out to have the real “stuff” of education. Children and families are learning rich Jewish content while also building relationships, experiencing Judaism and its values in action, and deeply rooting themselves in the Jewish people.

Anna Marx is an independent consultant who has worked with The Jewish Education Project and the Experiment in Congregational Education for the past five years. Cyd B. Weissman is the Director of Innovation in Congregational Learning at The Jewish Education Project. Rob Weinberg is the National Director of the Experiment in Congregational Education at HUC-JIR’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education. They authors wish to express their deep gratitude to Cindy Reich who played an integral part in the successful completion of the Powerful Learning Study.