For millions of American Jews, the words “Jewish education” most likely conjure images of days spent in synagogue classrooms decoding Hebrew, reciting prayers, learning holiday customs, and reading about biblical figures. This is the past, but not the future of congregational education. This form of part-time, mostly afterschool and/or weekend Jewish learning has been the most popular single setting for the Jewish education of Jewish children for many decades. More than 2,000 supplementary schools (most, though not all, of which are part of synagogues) are the main source of Jewish education for more than 230,000 Jewish children in North America making them the largest 'network' operating in the arena of Jewish education. Despite its popularity, supplementary education has long been subject to often biting criticism as ineffectual or worse. In recent years, these critiques have sparked renewed efforts to improve and even transform congregational education. The breadth and scope of these efforts, encompassing hundreds of synagogues and dozens of communities, have made it more urgent that we understand the dynamics of congregational educational change: how it works and how to make it work better. This article draws on a large body of evaluation research conducted in the main by the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA) research team across many settings. Turning to this corpus, the authors tease out some general principles for what it would take to transform congregational education, something that they believe is desirable, difficult, but doable.
Areas of Inquiry for Future Research
- How can processes that are almost inevitably incremental in practice (even when guided by a “big vision”) be a lever for fundamental and systemic change?
- How do we balance (or synthesize) a desire to elevate congregations' sights, raise their standards for what constitutes “good” Jewish learning, and increase their accountability for performance (all necessary, perhaps, if Jewish learning is really to be satisfying and transformative for individuals) with a recognition of congregations' fundamental autonomy and their need to “own” whatever changes they make?
- How can we more effectively incorporate learners' voices in the change processes?
- Can we see today's initiatives—different as they are—as a collection of valid options for synagogues that are at different places in terms of their visions, histories, and capabilities?
- How can the congregational educational change initiatives collaborate more effectively in general?
- How can we help congregations take better advantage of additional modes and settings for Jewish learning?
- Should these initiatives be helping synagogues rethink their educational roles to embrace “educational stewardship” more explicitly? Should the change initiatives put greater emphasis on encouraging/helping congregations to engage populations currently not being served?
- How should congregational educational change initiatives relate themselves to non-synagogue providers of “complementary” education?
- How do we develop the cadre of personnel needed to carry forward and expand the work of congregational educational change (both synagogue leadership and those who work with them)?
- How do we enhance accountability, evaluation, and learning with respect to these initiatives?
In Deuteronomy 30 (verses 11-14), Moses confronts a weary people who have traveled far to reach the Promised Land. At times they have felt, individually and communally, as though they never will arrive despite their best efforts, their careful planning, and their investment in a transformational process designed to deliver them into a brighter future. In their hope and exhaustion, the Divine Word reaches their ears: “The commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. … The word is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart that you may do it.”
The road to systemic, transformative congregational educational change is long and hard. But there is great promise at the end of the journey if we commit sufficient resources and use them wisely. We have a good sense of what is possible and of what is needed to get there. The change principles and intervention strategies laid out in this article have the potential to produce the transformative change that is needed to put behind us once and for all the disparagement and skepticism and to make our synagogues places of rich and joyful learning that makes a meaningful impact on the hundreds of thousands of children and adults who come in search of Jewish education.