The Time Is Now: Inspiration and Innovation in Jewish Education

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Start School Concept – Rocket Drawn On Blackboard

The cover story in last week’s Jewish Times about experiential Jewish education offered an optimistic look at preliminary solutions to persisting issues in the American Jewish community. I offer kudos to the array of forward-thinking educators mentioned in the article.

One striking — and disheartening — quote in the article read, “Jews consider their Jewish identity as merely one part of who they are.” This is due, in part, to the poor Jewish education previous generations received. Jewish education for children is all about drawing on our ancient wisdom and writings to develop a strong, enduring, and comprehensive Jewish identity, thereby creating a lasting connection to the Jewish people, its values and its practices.

Too many Jewish schools, both day schools and supplemental schools, are stuck in outmoded practices and outdated approaches. In the age of informational technology, children have changed. Their attention spans have changed; their ways of approaching the world and their knowledge acquisition have changed; their expectations have changed; and the necessary components for living rich and meaningful lives in the 21st-century Western world have changed.

We must change, too. By “we,” I mean teachers, school administrators, parents, funders and influencers. We must assure that learning feels authentic to students, that it resonates with each and every individual to feed their brains, their hearts, and their souls in very real and deep ways. This is the only way to ensure an enduring Jewish people.

Jews have always held steadfast to our beliefs, even in the face of forced conversions, expulsions and exterminations. In many cases, this unwavering loyalty has spilled over from tenets of our faith into how we function in day-to-day life. We have many long-standing traditions; however, pedagogy, curriculum, educational philosophies and instructional approaches do not fall within those immutable traditions. The patriarch, Jacob, although described as one who “sat in tents,” did not sit in a cheder/classroom such as those depicted in Roman Vishniac’s iconic photos. Moses and Joshua did not study in a Lithuanian Yeshiva. Maimonides did not enroll in Hebrew school after medical school. Although long-standing, many ways of transmitting Jewish ideas and values simply do not work anymore. (I’m not sure that they ever did work for the mass population.)

We need not accept a status quo simply because it’s “always” been done that way. We should not assume things cannot change on a large scale; they can. The programs highlighted in last week’s article — and the ones that are happening in other committed schools — remind us that we shouldn’t tolerate second-rate Jewish education for our greatest and most important treasures, our children.

So what can we do to cultivate a strong generation of Jews to come?

Each stakeholder in the Jewish education ecosystem has a unique role to play in positively disrupting Jewish education, which can create a wave of transformative practices across the educational spectrum.

• Teachers supported by their administrators must embrace professional development to gain facility with a variety of contemporary educational models. Each of these approaches, in addition to many other designs being implemented across the continent, can be applied to Jewish learning so that we help create lasting meaning and abiding internalization of Jewish values in our children.

• Parents need to be in full partnership with their children’s Jewish educational programs. This means staying informed about what and how their children are learning, establishing a dialogue with their children’s teachers, and being open to reinforcing at home the ideas and values their children learn in school. Modeling is more effective than lecturing. Children need to see their parents’ commitment to their rich Jewish education.

• Funders need to examine carefully their priorities and decide, based on their view of how to ensure the perpetuation of the Jewish people, what types of Jewish education are worthy causes. Hopefully, all will recognize how essential it is to support Jewish education.

• Influencers such as clergy, Federation staff and Jewish communal professionals need to advocate vociferously for a strong, defining Jewish education for each and every Jewish child. We are the people of the book; we cannot survive with an uninformed and uninspired population. Imagine how we would thrive with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic base!

Many Jewish organizations are working on improving our children’s education. My colleagues in the field and I work with schools nationwide on creating and implementing new ideas to connect our children positively with their Judaism. We are committed to changing the paradigm and have seen success. We know it’s not just possible, it’s essential. However, if new ideas or initiatives hit a dead-end on the drawing room table, then we have accomplished nothing. We, the Jewish people, need every one of you to invest in our future by dedicating your interest, time, energy, and yes, even your money, to Jewish education.

Sharon Freundel is the managing director of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, a bold initiative to radically improve Jewish education in day schools. She has more than 40 years of experience in Jewish education as a teacher, administrator and parent. Contact her at sharon@jewishchallenge.org.

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