Upending the Grammar of the Conventional Religious School

August, 2014

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 80, Issue 3, pages 193-228


This article provides an overview and analysis of a relatively new phenomenon: congregational schools that have altered the conventional grammar of schooling, either through their structural arrangements or through their curricular approaches. Five pre-bar/bat mitzvah models are discussed: family schools, schools as communities, informal / experiential programs, afterschool/day care programs, and those that deconstruct and reconstruct the conventional model. In addition, three curricular innovations are examined: project based learning, learning organized around the interests and abilities of the students, and Hebrew Through Movement. Also considered are the factors that are necessary to the survival and proliferation of these new structures and curricular arrangements.


Questions that Remain

In keeping with the theme of this 80th anniversary issue of the Journal, there is still a great deal we don’t know about new approaches to congregational schooling. Below a number of questions that call out to be researched:


How Well Are the New Models Working?

The most important thing we don’t know is the extent to which these new approaches are making a difference, as compared to the conventional model. Do learners find them more engaging? Do they learn more content and retain what they have learned? Do they inspire learners to incorporate Jewish practices into their lives? These questions are extraordinarily difficult to answer, but they are the questions that ultimately matter the most.


What Does Success Look Like?

The 1980s gave us David Schoem’s (1989) ethnography of a mediocre congregational school. The 1990s gave us Joe Reimer’s (1997) ethnography of a conventional school that was “succeeding,” at least on its own terms. Where are today’s ethnographies of the new models of the 21st century? If this article inspires one researcher to consider such a study, and one potential funder to support it, it will have succeeded.


How Far Are We From the Tipping Point?

While there are probably a few new models being created in the Midwest and the South, it is not an accident that most of the models I have found are located in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area, since these Jewish communities are heavily into re-imagining the religious school.


As Malcolm Gladwell (2002) has taught us, innovations take root after reaching a point at which it seems that “everyone” aspires to adopt them. How far are we from the tipping point for new ways of thinking about the congregational school? Based on Tyack and Cuban’s (1995) analysis of public school reform, the answer might be a very pessimistic “we will never reach a tipping point.” On the other hand, the context of Jewish education is different from that of the public schools. It has no teachers’ unions and no standardized testing; neither elections nor real estate prices hinge on the achievements of Jewish students. Can we overcome the inertia of institutions and the ambivalence of parents? The institutions discussed in this article (from the national organization to the local school) are hoping that we can.

Updated: Sep. 18, 2014