Is a New Paradigm the Need of the Hour?

Fall, 2012

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 78, Issue 4, pages 291-293


Joseph Reimer, associate editor of the JJE, opens this issue devoted to responses to Jonathan Woocher's article “Reinventing Jewish Education for the 21st Century” which appeared in the last issue of this Journal (summer, 2012).


From his editor's notes:

"As a scholar, I read Jonathan Woocher's “Reinventing Jewish Education for the 21st Century”—which appeared in the last issue of this Journal—with marked ambivalence. Woocher was predictably bold in declaring that what has worked for Jewish education in the 20th century is not likely to continue working in the 21st, and proposing that rather than waiting for changes to evolve, let's take the lead and create a new paradigm for Jewish education. That claim raises many questions. Is the best response to anticipated changes the creating of a new paradigm? Is Woocher's reading of future trends based on the most reliable studies of human learning and the impact of emerging technologies on that learning? Has he carefully enough parsed the question of “how will learning and teaching change?” from the question of “how will identity formation take place in that changing learning environment?”


Fortunately, questions like these are addressed in this issue through the contribution of 10 responses to Woocher's piece. The editors invited five practitioners and five researchers in the field of Jewish education to respond to Woocher's call for building a new paradigm. Readers can see how these experienced educators and researchers reflect from many different angles on Woocher's call for reinventing Jewish education….


It will come as little surprise that most of the respondents do not buy all the assumptions that undergird Woocher's call. Rather than try to summarize all their thoughtful responses, let me highlight three basic questions that resonate for me.


Question 1: Is it wise to be creating a new paradigm for Jewish education for the 21st century? This is a double question: Can one know enough about the future to make sensible predictions on which to build a new system of Jewish education? Will it make sense to think of Jewish education in North America as a single system that can be guided by a unified paradigm? Ari Y. Kelman raises the first question and Susan M. Kardos the second. They each wonder if Woocher has built enough of a case to trust that the trends he cites will have long-term staying power, and if they do, will they affect all the varied arms of Jewish education in similar fashion? Will it be helpful for leaders in synagogues, day schools, early childhood centers, summer camps, and Israel experiences to all look to a single paradigm to chart their future courses?


Question 2: Is the new paradigm that Woocher sketches a compelling one for Jewish educators? Surely Woocher has in mind a new generation of Jewish educators that will have grown up in the new age that he envisions and be at home in the new ways of learning and identity-building that may emerge. Still, will they be inspired to play the more limited roles that he envisions for them? Indeed, should they be inspired? Hanan Alexander, Jonathan Mirvis, and Daniel Pekarsky argue that Woocher is prematurely clipping their wings; even in this imagined future—they argue—Jewish educators should find ways to more vigorously argue for the primacy of Jewish tradition. Will there not be room in the future for educators who are savvy in the emerging language to communicate effectively the compelling beauty and worthiness of this ancient tradition?


Question 3: How can Jewish educational institutions prepare themselves for the coming wave of change that is likely to engulf them in the near future? Whether one accepts Woocher's new paradigm or not, none of the respondents deny his claim that a wave of change is coming and institutions of Jewish learning need to prepare themselves for the discontinuities that they will face. Mindy B. Davids, Lonna S. Picker, Amy Sales, Robert M. Sherman, and Bradley Solmsen all argue that we already know that the kind of change that is needed is not the incremental change that most of our institutions prefer. Rather, it is a more fundamental structural change that only happens when there is a rare coalition of forces working together to bring that change forward. It requires the courage to ask fundamental questions and to bear the anxiety of great uncertainty. How—they wonder—will those who see the changes coming help our institutional leaders to look beyond the immediate pressures of survival to anticipate the adaptive changes that will be needed to thrive in the long term? Will Woocher's new paradigm come with a manual for achieving the kinds of institutional and professional changes that will be needed to stay afloat in a rising sea of uncertainty?


These are pressing questions for anyone anticipating the challenges that Jewish educators will face in the coming years. We are fortunate that after reading these 10 responses, we can turn to Woocher's rejoinder and learn how he responds to these questions. Enjoy the lively give-and-take and ask yourself: “How am I helping my institution prepare for the major changes coming our way?”


Listing of responses to Woocher's article in this issue:

The Challenge of Ethical Liberalism to Jewish Education in the 21st Century
Hanan Alexander - pages 294-296

The Role of the Educator in the Jewish Future
Mindy B. Davids - pages 297-298

Defining Purpose for Policy and Practice
Susan M. Kardos - pages 299-301

The Present in Future Tense
Ari Y. Kelman - pages 302-304

Is This the Paradigm Shift We Need?
Jonathan Mirvis - pages 305-308

Worries Occasioned by Woocher's Conception of Jewish Education
Daniel Pekarsky - pages 309-312

The Ongoing Need for Professional Learning
Lonna S. Picker - pages 313-315

What Research Teaches About the Possibility of Reinventing Jewish Education
Amy L. Sales - pages 316-319

Radical Reform in a Time of Uncertainty
Robert M. Sherman - pages 320-322

Framing Learner-Centered Jewish Education
Bradley Solmsen - pages 323-325

The conversation continues …

To Be Successful Today, Jewish Education Must Be Meaningful and Relevant
Jonathan Woocher - pages 326-330

Updated: Dec. 30, 2012