What Really Matters in Synagogue Education: A Comparative Case Study of a Conventional School and an Alternative Program


Source: Journal of Jewish Education Volume 83, 2017 Issue 4, pages 249-279

This article examines case studies of two part-time synagogue education programs, a conventional “Hebrew School” and an alternative program modeled after Jewish summer camp. Using the lens of teaching of Bible to children in Grades 3–5, the study provides insight into similarities and differences between the two types of programs and the impact of the program structure on the proliferation and/or staying power of one or the other. I found that factors of success in synagogue education may not be dependent on a program’s structure (“school”/“camp”) but, rather, on factors such as professional learning and content knowledge, among others.

Significant holes remain in our knowledge regarding the actual experience of the learner and the teacher in the last two decades or more since the explosion of focus and dollars going into Jewish congregational education, including the lack of a close look at content, pedagogy, the experience of the teachers and learner, and the relationship between the three. This study is an examination of what I call the “insides” or the “guts” of the Jewish education experience in the context of the congregational setting, looking at both a successful conventional school and a successful congregational alternative to the conventional school.

In her widely referenced article, “The Grammar of Congregational Schooling: Looking Beyond the Synagogue as an Institutional Template, ”Lynn-Sachs (2011) suggests that the tenacious hold of the traditional “school” structure on synagogue education may have to do with both the perceived legitimacy of schools as educating agents and Jewish educators’ deep familiarity (from having attended schools and, later taught in and administered them) with the “grammars” and frameworks of schooling. However, what if the hold of “school” had less to do with the grammar of schooling and more to do with the strengths or challenges inherent in the design and implementation of alternative congregational education experiences that are not “school”? Indeed, what if the issues are not dependent on the educational framework at all and, rather, have to do with factors that affect all or most educational programs, whether in the synagogue or elsewhere. Through this comparative case study, I sought to shine light on these questions and on the inner workings (perhaps the “grammars”) of these alternative education programs situated within the congregational context with the goal, among others, of understanding why it is that they have not become more widespread and why the more conventional “school” remains the predominant structure of Jewish education in the congregational milieu. Is it about the programmatic framework or is it about something else?

Change initiatives in congregational education dating from the early 1990s were largely based on certain assumptions about what constitutes engaging and meaningful learning (Jewish or otherwise), one being that changing the structure and artifacts of school to resemble more attractive programmatic frameworks such as camp or family school would improve both the attitude and the experience of the learners, thereby strengthening the connection of young people to the Jewish community and Jewish life. The findings of this study suggest that changing the structure of the education program is not entirely without value. However, it also points to four elements that have long been recognized as essential to any good educational enterprise, as equally, if not more, important in the success of an educational program, school or otherwise:(a) professional learning as it impacts teacher capacities, (b) the choice of content knowledge, (c) relationships among students and among students and staff, and (d) the quality and assessment of student work.

This study is a small one, consisting of two case studies within the context of non-immersive synagogue education. Nevertheless, the findings suggest that the assumptions regarding what constitutes success and failure in synagogue education might benefit from a more thorough examination of these factors along with research to uncover and probe other factors in successful congregational education, in addition to program structure. Such research may contribute to more far reaching improvements on behalf of the 80% (Wertheimer,1999) of Jewish children who pass through the doors of synagogue education programs.

Based on this study, the characteristics at the core of the alternative program of camp points to the presence of most decidedly “school-like” elements and many “alternative-like” elements are present in the conventional school studied here. Perhaps Pekarsky’s (2014)“both/and” stance where Jewish education occurs in a mixture of alternative and conventional programs can serve as a guide in considering the assumptions and their alignment mentioned above as well as foster a deeper understanding of the factors that are core to any successful educational enterprise, regardless of the programmatic structure, how they are most effectively manifest in a given framework, and what content knowledge is more conducive to which.

Finally, in both of the cases cited here, the programmatic framework or structure, whether it be “camp” or school, was less significant than the strength of those factors that comprise successful education in any setting or program among them professional learning, relationships, choice of pedagogy, and flexible content knowledge on the part of educators. These factors are not, according to this research, structure or program-dependent. Rather, the success of any given congregational supplementary education experience may depend on attention being paid to these well-known staples of excellence in education. 

Updated: Feb. 12, 2018