What Really Matters in Synagogue Education? Comparing an Alternative Program Model and a Conventional School Model

From Section:
Formal Education
Feb. 02, 2016

Source: JTS


This study is an in-depth examination of two synagogue education programs, one a conventional “Hebrew School” structure and the other an alternative program modeled after Jewish summer camp. Through the lens of the teaching of Bible to children in the Grade 3-5 age range, I provide thick descriptions of an alternative and a successful conventional congregational supplementary education program and compare them in order to gain insight into what distinguishes the two models, where they are similar and the impact these similarities and differences might have on the proliferation and/or staying power of one or the other type of models.

The programs are presented as case studies organized according to four domains of curricular function: the educating institution, the educational leadership, the teacher (or unit head) and the observed classroom/camp session. How do the organizations or individuals associated with each of these domains understand the teaching of Bible in their respective program structures? In what ways does the programmatic structure influence the choice of content knowledge and pedagogy?

I found that the structure (“school” or “camp”, for example) of the education program in the synagogue setting is only one of many factors influencing the success of the congregational education enterprise and may actually be less important than factors that are common to both models such as strength and vision of the educational leader, professional learning opportunities for faculty, quality and knowledge of teachers (unit heads) and sense of community and relationships among the children and staff. The camp model was unique in one particular characteristic, the use of the physical space. Camps function in a large and diverse physical setting with particular spaces perhaps chosen for their alignment with the nature of the activity.

In sum, in the past 25 years, given perceived failures of the traditional congregational school, considerable resources, financial and others, have been invested in creating new, alternative models of synagogue education. Most of the new models focused primarily on structural changes, meaning that many of the problematic aspects found in the traditional congregational school persist in the new models. This suggests that the lack of widespread proliferation of alternative models might have to do with insufficient attention to the core factors constituting successful education no matter the model.

Updated: Feb. 07, 2017
Bible studies | Elementary schools | Pedagogy | Research | Supplementary education | Synagogue education