Redefining Jewish Education: Federations’ Goals for a New Century

January 29, 2019

Source: eJewish Philanthropy 


As noted by Jonathan Sarna (relying on concepts developed by John Dewey), throughout its history, Jewish education in North America primarily focused intentionally on knowledge acquisition (prayer and Torah literacy). Living Jewishly – the how-to of holidays and rituals, of faith and communal obligation – came only incidentally, the result of merely living in Jewish community. But religious practice and ethnic tribalism have shifted in recent decades. Larger culture now challenges rather than reinforces Jewish living; the incidentals of Jewish living have disappeared for most. Intentional Jewish education has become the only way most Jews can discover what it means to be Jewish. Today, and particularly when considering those living outside of commandedness (outside of God-centered halacha), a Jewish identity raises questions: Why be Jewish? What does Jewish community offer me and my family? What is the purpose of Jewish education? Should I marry a Jew – should I have a Jewish home? And (for some), what does it mean to live all of my religious and ethnic identities – where does being Jewish fit in? And so, Jewish education has transformed to address these questions in a truly diverse and multifaceted landscape of opportunity, for varied ages and stages, happening across settings and around the world.

Jewish federations launched with a focus on the vast human service needs of an immigrant population and in support of Israel and global Jewry. Soon after, Jewish education also received support from Jewish federations, although its leaders could sometimes feel as though they were last priority. But as Jews and Jewish life have changed and as Jewish education has transformed, so have Federation priorities.

Today, Jewish education and engagement is the cornerstone of federation work. Across the federated system, about 32% of federation funding is spent on Jewish education and engagement, an individual federation’s spending can range from 25% to 85%, and the smaller the federation, the more likely it is to spend more of its resources on Jewish education and engagement.

There is also breadth to federation spending. Of the approximately $380 million spent on Jewish education and engagement annually, 24% – about $90 million – is directed towards day school education. The other 75% of the funding supports teens’ experiences, adult learning, Hillel and other campus programs, family engagement, synagogues and camps, the inclusion of those with special needs, welcoming newcomers to communities, and much, much more. Involving communal partners or the direct initiative of a federation, the work on the ground is broad in scope and nuanced in execution.

North American Jewish life is shifting. With a high intermarriage rate outside of Orthodoxy, and with the children of intermarried families now themselves intermarrying, we don’t know what the future of Judaism will be. There is uncertainty but also opportunity, limited only by our creativity and capacity to collaborate. With an interdependent network of partners, Jewish federations are strategically developing intentional education: experiences and opportunities to think about, explore, and otherwise do Jewish to fill the void of what once was incidental, to bring Judaism to life in our ultra-secular culture. Jewish education is no longer at the side but at the forefront of what we do. Through experiences and through relationships, through study and through doing, we connect and provide tools for people to raise engaged Jewish families and build Jewish communities of interdependence, warmth and joy.

Read the entire post at eJewish Philanthropy.

Updated: Feb. 13, 2019