Deep Change in Congregational Education

Oct. 03, 2010

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 76, Issue 4, pages 358 - 378


The Re-Imagine Project (of the Experiment in Congregational Education) is an attempt to engender innovation in congregational schools. A long-term study of 24 participating congregations in Greater New York examined the extent to which the effort yielded new models of education (radical change). The study included surveys of task force members and interviews with 101 key informants. Results show four patterns of change: radical, replacement of old forms with new forms, creation of alternatives, and addition of programs. Factors related to starting points, the change process, and resources were found to influence which synagogues achieved deeper levels of change. 



The implementation study is based on 24 of the original 32 synagogues that participated in The Re-Imagine Project. Synagogues that failed to complete the planning phase or were on hiatus from the project were not included in the study. Findings therefore represent the experience of the most stable and/or resilient synagogues and, in some regards, present the most optimistic picture of the kind of change that is possible. Beyond that, the synagogues in the study are diverse in terms of the key variables of location, denomination, size, and culture.


The participating congregations are located throughout the New York metropolitan area: five are in Manhattan, three in Queens, one in Brooklyn, seven in Westchester, and eight on Long Island. Importantly, some of them are in intensely Jewish areas, which mean that there is not only a large Jewish population but also high levels of competition from other synagogues and groups. Others are in areas remote from centers of Jewish life, often facing the challenges of a declining Jewish population base.


These congregations cover much of the denominational spectrum. Orthodox congregations are not included in the project as they tend not to have supplementary school programs given their membership's high rate of day school participation.



The research confirms that a thoughtful and concerted effort can effect change in congregational education. Two out of three congregations that began the Re-Imagine Project achieved noticeable change in their program's structure, content, and/or approach. Rarer, however, is the capacity of the synagogues to arrive at new models of education—to introduce new modes of thinking about education, to change the culture of the school, and to create not just a new program but an innovating congregation in which education will continue to grow and evolve in exciting ways.


This more radical type of change appears to be linked to the capacity of the task force to move apace through the planning phase, creating a vision and generating creative options for innovation. The group's initial ability to think big and take risks continues to have an impact on the congregation's innovation during the implementation phase. Radical change is also helped by an understanding of the difference between a new program and a new model, a difference that some congregations appeared not to grasp. Synagogues that were interested in changing the deep structure of the school were more likely to achieve such change than those that were focused on surface-level changes.


The impact that participation on the task force or in Re-Imagine pilot programs had on individuals helped to generate further change and to increase the likelihood that change would get to the deep level. One common impact was an increased sense of community, which in turn raised levels of participation and started, in some instances, a virtuous spiral of positive change in the school and in the wider congregation. Another was the cultivation of new leadership which in turn brought new ways of thinking to the synagogue board and other committees.


The most energy and dynamism was seen in congregations that tried a variety of innovations. It is unlikely that any one change can be deep or broad enough to affect the whole educational system. As Wertheimer (2009) notes, schools are complex institutions and require a series of interventions to turn them around. The value of multiple interventions is that each successful innovation spawned others (e.g., a change in the schedule provoked a change in the curriculum; a change in family education led to a change in Shabbat morning services). As change bred more change, the momentum of innovation quickened. If and where this process is sustained, it is likely to lead to the kind of deep change that the field is seeking.

Updated: Mar. 08, 2011