This paper offers first a historical analysis of the role of central agencies for Jewish education in America, followed by a model of how central agencies today can best position themselves as communal change agents.
When Samson Benderly founded the first Bureau of Jewish Education in New York in 1910, he envisioned it as a “lever of change”and a “laboratory of experimentation” for Jewish education. However, Benderly’s vision was never fully realized, due to a combination of factors, including the collapse of the New York Kehilla, and the shift in priorities of central agencies from being agents of communal change to supporting and serving Jewish organizations. For the next century, despite the important work they continued to do in areas such as teacher training, school accreditation, and resource development, central agencies were rarely seen as significant players in the field of Jewish education or as sources of leadership and innovation in their communities.
Today, as the American Jewish community navigates a severely challenging economic climate, the need for central agencies to enact Benderly’s vision is more pressing than ever. Fortunately, the insights gleaned from complexity and systems theory offer a model for how this can be accomplished. Because change agents in complex contexts often must operate without formal authority (because there is no single authority in emergent systems) or the expectation of linear impacts (because complex systems are unpredictable), the lessons of complexity seem particularly suited for the realities of central agencies, and their challenges can become opportunities to develop unique strengths.
As central agencies cannot compel action or change from their constituencies, they must become adept at mastering the skills that foster true and lasting change within systems: gathering and disseminating knowledge, creating networks and fostering connections, and envisioning and modeling new possibilities in Jewish education.