Jul 16, 2009

The Jewish Week: "Reinvigorating Hebrew Schools: A New Approach"

The Jewish Week: "Reinvigorating Hebrew Schools: A New Approach"

by Jonathan S. Woocher
Special To The Jewish Week


The growing burden of day school tuitions has, as Gary Rosenblatt recently noted in these pages, ironically focused new attention on supplementary Jewish education. Families who firmly believe in the value of day school education, but are now facing virtually insurmountable challenges trying to pay for it, are wondering whether it is possible to find at least some of what they seek for their children in revamped, intensive supplementary programs.  They join many other families with children already in such programs, and others trying to decide whether to enroll their children at all, in asking whether supplementary education can provide a meaningful and satisfying Jewish educational experience.

It's an important question for these families and the future of the Jewish community as a whole. First, the good news: The last two decades have seen a growing movement across North America to improve and even transform supplementary Jewish education.  National and local initiatives have mushroomed and have become increasingly sophisticated and effective in helping synagogues — the primary providers of supplementary education — create more dynamic and engaging programs for educating children and families. A number of alternative models, quite different from the "Hebrew schools" we've come to know and often hate, have been implemented, some by synagogues, some by other types of educational entrepreneurs. The New York Jewish community has been the setting for some of the most ambitious efforts to "re-imagine" congregational education, and will be the beneficiary of even more extensive initiatives in the future.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of the efforts we have seen thus far suffer from one serious limitation: they start with the producers of supplementary education, not its consumers, as their primary focus.
Here's why this is a problem: The "market" for Jewish education today is diverse and growing more so. Research confirms that parents want to be active choosers of the type of Jewish education their children will receive. The current system provides some options, but not enough. The main choice is between full-time (day school) and part-time (supplementary) Jewish education. There are many synagogues offering supplementary programs, but they tend to cover a pretty standard curriculum (holidays, Torah study, prayer, Jewish values, some history and rudimentary Hebrew) in roughly similar ways.

For the most part, these programs occupy a relatively narrow niche — one that serves well an important segment of the overall potential market for Jewish education, but still leaves substantial populations that are either poorly served (the education doesn't really match what they seek) or unserved altogether (a significant number of children get no Jewish education at all).

Take a day school family now seeking an intensive supplementary program, perhaps one that meets eight or 10 hours per week, rather than the typical four or five, and that emphasizes serious Hebrew literacy, either for purposes of conversation or text study in the original. Or, take a very different, but not uncommon family whose Jewishness is primarily cultural, not religious, or focused on social justice and activism. Perhaps the family has a child who is passionate and gifted in the arts and wants to approach her or his Jewish learning through this lens. Perhaps the family is an interfaith one, and seeks a Jewish educational program that is uniquely sensitive to their life issues. 

With effort, some of these families might be able to find a suitable supplementary program. But wouldn't it be far better if they didn't have to work so hard? What it would take is an approach to providing supplementary education that is market-driven and community-coordinated.

Such an approach would begin by "mapping" the current landscape — what does the market look like, who is being well-served, where do gaps exist, what programs already exist, what assets are available to develop new programs. Then it would set out, working with existing providers and potential new ones, to build a "system" that would offer as many high-quality options as the market can support.

Such an approach would not in any way displace synagogues from their roles as primary providers — though it might free them to think creatively about new ways to configure their programs. For instance, several congregations could combine to operate a set of magnet schools with different curricular emphases, or meeting times could be established that would be available to all their members. Nor would this approach make less necessary or valuable the work taking place today aimed at helping providers ensure that they deliver the highest quality Jewish learning experiences. What it would do is enable us to engage more children and families in Jewish learning, with greater satisfaction, and with greater impact.

At the end of the day, that has to be our goal. At JESNA, we believe that every family that wants to send its children to a quality day school should be able to do so. And we want the same for those choosing supplementary education. It will take some creative thinking and a lot of collaboration. But it's doable, and we're working now with our partners in central agencies across North America to make that vision a reality.

Jonathan Woocher is chief ideas officer at JESNA (Jewish Educational Service of North America) and director of the Lippman Kanfer Institute.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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