Mar 29, 2011

AVICHAI.org: "The USCJ Vision Might be Shortsighted"

AVICHAI.org: "The USCJ Vision Might be Shortsighted"

The USCJ Vision Might be Shortsighted
–Susan Kardos

http://avichai.org/2011/03/the-uscj-vision-might-be-shortsighted/

For those of us who care deeply about Schechter schools and about the strength of Conservative Judaism, the USCJ's (United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism) recently publicized, new strategic plan is likely a disappointment.

The USCJ's freshly articulated vision begins, "The USCJ is a community of kehillot—sacred communities—committed to a dynamic Judaism that is learned and passionate, authentic and pluralistic, joyful and accessible, egalitarian or traditional."  One core element in its newly stated mission is, "to ensure educational excellence true to the vision of Conservative Judaism for children and adults in our kehillot."  So far so good.

As someone who is passionately committed both to Conservative Judaism and to intensive and immersive Jewish education for children, the disconnect for me is the gap between USCJ's educational mission and the stated strategies to achieve it: (1) Re-organizing educational programs by type of consumer rather than by type of service, (2) Improving programs through access to external expertise, networked learning, and best practice, (3) Partnering with mission-aligned education organizations, (4) Convening a blue ribbon panel, and (5) Creating a staffed, central force around the vision and its implementation.

Yes, I understand that the plan is a plan for the USCJ (and thus, primarily, synagogue schools) and not for the greater Conservative Movement (although I frankly can't see how the two can be uncoupled).  What is nonetheless troubling is the plan's lack of focus on Schechter schools and their centrality to strong synagogues, even in those sections of the plan that set forth a vision for education.  While the USCJ envisions a "dynamic Judaism that is learned and passionate," it virtually ignores the deep and rich value that Schechter schools and the Schechter Association add to synagogue life and to Conservative Judaism overall.

At present, the committed core of the Conservative Movement comes from Schechter schools. Dr. Jack Wertheimer's survey research about young leaders in their 20s and 30s (funded by The AVI CHAI Foundation) showed that over 40% of respondents are products of the Conservative Movement. Of that group, 40% are products of day schools.  I believe it is safe to assume that a healthy number of that disproportionate percentage are Schechter graduates. An informal survey of JTS deans indicates that at least 40-50% of JTS students are day school graduates. Considering that day school students make up perhaps 15% of school-aged children in the Conservative Movement, one would think United Synagogues would be more interested in making Schechter education an integral part of its plan.

Furthermore, the educational effort of the strategic plan focuses on "an integrated system of experiential and formal education" for each age group ("by type of consumer rather than by type of service or product").  The truth is, Schechter schools have specific educational characteristics, such as a commitment to the study of biblical, rabbinic, and prayer texts in the original, that are unique among the educational providers for each age group.  These unique characteristics position Schechter schools to make a distinctive contribution to educating young people in the Conservative Movement. Including all educational providers together with Schechter schools runs the risk of missing, or diluting, this important facet. Because of the different contribution they make to the education of young people, Schechter schools have gifts to bring and needs to meet that differ from those of other education providers that would require special attention in an integrated educational system.

A focus on strengthening synagogue schools ought to remain a central piece of USCJ's strategic plan.  But what a missed opportunity that Schechter schools don't occupy a more prominent place than they do, especially given USCJ's vision and mission.  Ironically, it is USCJ, more than any other institution, which should understand the powerful and vital role that Schechter schools play in vibrant synagogues, animated Jewish institutions and communities, and a glorious Jewish People with an energized and elevated center.  I wonder what colleagues and friends from across the denominational and post-denominational spectrum think?

Susan Kardos is the Senior Director of Strategy and Education Planning at the AVI CHAI Foundation.  The comments expressed above are taken from discussions in which she participated as an ex-officio member of the Solomon Schechter Day School Association Board. Follow her on Twitter @susankardos


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Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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