Schools That Work: What We Can Learn From Good Jewish Supplementary Schools

March, 2009

Source: Avi Chai Foundation


A review conducted by ten researchers of ten "effective" Jewish supplementary schools of various sizes and denominations, and from various regions in the US. The report draws conclusions about factors contributing to the success of good schools, noteworthy characteristics of the schools, and policy recommendations for improving supplementary schools. The study presents six “noteworthy characteristics of good schools.” Good schools (1) work on building friendships and community, (2) go beyond teaching facts to allow students to work on meaning, (3) use experiential education, (4) actualize a clear vision, (5) value themselves and their students, and (6) involve not only students but their families. Wertheimer makes it clear that it takes “a combination of traits to forge a strong school.”

From the Executive Summary of the report:

In an effort to learn about the range and quality of programs, a team of ten researchers—five academics and five experienced educators with backgrounds in school administration—observed ten Jewish supplementary schools reputed to be effective, as defined by the quality of formal study and positive Jewish experiences they provide, the clarity and thoughtfulness of school objectives, the development of a community of practice to translate learning into Jewish living, and the coordination of key personnel in the pursuit of those goals. The research team examined factors that go into the making of these reasonably good supplementary programs — their professional and lay leadership, teaching staff, curriculum, experiential programs, and offerings for parents and family education. Each school was studied by a matched partnership of one academic and one seasoned educator with the expectation that a binocular view would improve our understanding of what makes these schools tick.

The schools observed varied in size, region, denominational affiliation and approach. By observing the schools carefully, attending classes and interviewing the key participants, the research team determined how schools put together the various components of their program, worked to improve their delivery of Jewish education, introduced creative new programs and sought to shape their students as Jews.



  1. Good schools intentionally work to develop a community among their students, staff and parents. Beginning with the assumption that learning cannot be separated from context, and that to a large extent the school’ s most important message is embedded in the culture and relationships it fosters, these schools devote much time to building a community that attends to the needs of individual children; embraces them in an environment where their classmates become their good, often their best, friends; and connects them to the larger congregational body, if the school is housed in a synagogue, or to another Jewish sub-community, if it is not. No less important, the community fostered by the school not only is warm and hospitable, but also establishes norms explicitly identified as distinctly Jewish.
  2. Good schools place an emphasis on taking Jewish study seriously. Admittedly, some schools are far stronger at engaging students in discussions about Jewish values and holidays than with intensive study of texts. But regardless of the emphasis, good schools have developed a sophisticated curriculum that goes beyond rote learning, examining Jewish content so that it “sticks.” To do so, schools work at engaging the minds of their students, getting them to mull over texts and issues. Through class discussions and informal experiences, schools challenge students to analyze, evaluate and compare texts, ideas and ethical dilemmas and encourage them to develop a personal relationship to religious questions.
  3. Moreover, good schools create opportunities for students to engage in experiential Jewish education. By participating in actual prayer, leading religious services, attending Shabbat retreats, engaging in activities to help the poor and needy, participating in programs celebrating Israel, students are exposed to Jewish experiences that they may long remember and may stimulate them to explore questions of personal meaning. This experiential component, in tandem with formal learning, is vital, as it provides students with the opportunity to live their Judaism and not only to learn about it.
  4. Good schools understand the need to align all their efforts with school goals. School directors, clergy and lay leaders often play a critical role in clarifying the school’ s goals and working with teaching staff to align what goes on in the classroom with the broader objectives of the school. Beyond the classroom, budgets, governance, leadership and other facets of the school also are directed to attain goals.
  5. Good schools value themselves and their students. In most of the schools under study, discipline was achieved primarily by attending closely to the needs of individual children and engaging them with compelling materials. Not surprisingly, students respond positively when they feel valued.
  6. Good schools regard families as allies and also clients. Involved parents can become important models for their children and will encourage children to take maximal advantage of their Jewish educational experiences. Moreover, under optimal conditions, parents create a home context for reinforcing the school’ s teachings. In turn, when children are stimulated by their Jewish learning and experiences, parents are likely to seek out more Jewish education for themselves. In this sense, schools have a mission to engage parents and not only children.

The work of building an effective supplementary school is not only to actualize each of these aspirations so that they become real, but also to hold them in balance. No single one alone will insure a strong program. It is the combination of traits that forges a strong school.

Updated: Jun. 07, 2009