Reinventing Jewish Education for the 21st Century

Summer, 2012

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 78, Issue 3, pages 182-226


Jonathan Woocher offers an extended meditation on the need for a new paradigm for Jewish education to meet the individual and communal needs of the Jewish people in the 21st century. An impressive panel of respondents from the Jewish educational world will offer their reactions and analyses of Woocher's piece in the next issue of JJE.

From the JJE Editor's Note:

"Although it is easy to assume that the core of Jewish education rests on a canonical list of texts, ideas, and traditions that connects each new generation with its predecessors, Woocher reminds us that Jewish education also needs to be contextualized and adapted to the specific characteristics of a particular generation or era. As we have come to understand more about the dramatic changes in the nature of Jewish identity and belonging that have already begun to emerge in the 21st century, it is natural that Jewish education will need to adapt to this new and changing environment. Jewish education in the United States came of age in the 20th century as the American Jewish community dealt with the transitions from an immigrant generation and the tensions their children and grandchildren felt between the traditional Jewish identities of those immigrants and their new American ones. They confronted the need for “inculcating a strong dual identity of Jewishness and Americanness” and “ensuring Jewish cultural survival.”


Woocher's piece will open an important conversation about the need for a new paradigm for Jewish education that reflects the important changes in American Jewry in the last generation. As a result of intermarriage, adoptions, and other factors, American Jews are more diverse than ever before. In addition, American Jews have shared in the recent trends of American culture as a whole, which have been marked by a more individualistic approach to religion that reflects personal values and a sense of authenticity, as well as a gradual disengagement from traditional institutions and authorities. Jewishness now competes and combines with a variety of other aspects of identity. Changing attitudes toward Israel and its symbolic importance in Jewish life have problematized Jewish education on Israel. Woocher argues that for Jewish education to have any hope of remaining relevant, inspiring, and compelling, it must deal with these factors and engage with the emergent values and aspirations of a dramatically different American Jewish community than the one it confronted a century or even half-century ago.


Woocher describes the characteristics of a new paradigm for Jewish education that will need to be more learner-focused, in which students collaborate in shaping their own education and act as partners in the co-production of making Jewish meaning in particular and human meaning in general. Such a model of Jewish education will be more holistic and integrated into everyday life, not simply concerned with mastery of texts and observance of rituals and holidays. Jewish education in the new century will also need to revise and reinvent methods of educational delivery that engage with new developments in general education and information technology. Innovative uses of information networking and open sourcing (e.g., Wikipedia) will need to play a greater role. All this and more is great food for thought, and the conversation on it will continue with responses in our next issue."

Updated: Sep. 27, 2012