Lifelong learning in synagogues: The forgotten communities

Published: 
2020

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, 86:3

 

Though the development of Jewish schools in the United Kingdom has increased enormously in the past 50 years, the planning of adult Jewish education in the UK has been almost entirely ignored. This article explores the purpose and provision of adult education in three communities in the United Synagogue, the largest synagogal body in the UK. Synagogue-based adult education is apparently provided with little planning or measurement of outcomes. Community leaders and members take differing approaches to its aims and success measurement, with socialization being vital for participants, most of whom are in their senior years.

The questions that challenged the United Synagogue communities and their leaders were in essence:

  • What are the aims of adult education in United Synagogue communities?
     
  • How is “success” defined and measured?
     
  • What programs are offered, by whom, for whom, and why?
     
  • What training do, or should, rabbis or lay leaders receive in planning and delivering adult education?

Conclusions

Many Anglo-Jewish communities run programs called “adult education” rather than lifelong learning, and this research examined the anecdotal belief that there is little planning in their aims, delivery, and outcome measurement. In brief, it concluded that rabbis and lay leaders took differing approaches to the aims of adult education, with the lay leaders seeking to encourage active community participation, wanting members “to feel comfortable,” and the rabbis mainly sought to engage their members in a lifelong Jewish learning journey to “enhance their lives.”

This difference in approach was reinforced by the responses of community members, who mainly sought to expand their Jewish literacy knowledge and understanding of Jewish philosophy (without necessarily engaging in text study) but, most importantly, within a strong communal socialization framework. All the participants surveyed believed that education was at the heart of Judaism, was not age restricted, and was what a synagogue should be delivering.

As in the secular world, success in Jewish adult education was difficult to define and even harder to measure. Though the numbers attending courses could be one indicator, and increased knowledge could be another, the more nebulous factor of “feeling comfortable” was also significant. Further research into the definition and measurement of success in a Jewish community context would be valuable in developing a system of metrics and performance indicators.

Initially the hypothesis being tested was that United Synagogue community-based lifelong learning was provided with little planning or measurement of outcomes. It transpired from the responses given by the participants that formal account was hardly ever taken of the need for socialization within adult education, a particularly relevant factor in an aging community cohort.

This research has confirmed the views of Grant and Tickton Schuster (2011, p. 680) that “Jewish study has been a consistent and integral component of Orthodox Jewish life” and of Lamm (2003, p. 22) that the process is more important than the result. What it also showed was that the British United Synagogue community of the early 21st century was far more than just a group of prayer facility buildings and burial societies. There is clearly a growing opportunity for linking the thirst for a diverse range of Jewish knowledge with socialization at a time convenient to the group most likely to be involved, based in, or close to the synagogue itself.

Seeking the views of a wider cross-section of each community could ensure greater participation, and training in adult education techniques could improve the planning and delivery of the programs. With little evidence that community members had been asked what they wanted and only a small advisory group, if at all, usually consisting of those with a direct interest in adult education, it was possible that communities would make the mistake, first articulated by Potter in 1981 that “If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.” This lack of proper training in the planning and delivery of Jewish adult education was a serious lacuna that needs addressing.

References

Grant, L. D., & Tickton Schuster, D. (2003). The impact of adult Jewish learning in today’s Jewish community. United Jewish Communities.

Lamm, N. (2003). Knowing vs learning: Which takes precedence. In J. Saks & S. Handleman (Eds.), Contemporary Torah education (pp. 11–26). Jerusalem.

Updated: Nov. 05, 2020
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