A Rationale for Reinventing Synagogue-based
Jewish Learning for Jewish Living
1983. The co-author was serving in his first education director position at Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta, Ga. As part of a synagogue renovation project, the synagogue’s school building (which had once served as the state’s Ku Klux Klan headquarters!) was being restored after having been deemed uninsurable and having been abandoned years earlier.
The synagogue had been founded in the city of Atlanta. In 1946, it followed the move of Jews to suburbia. Interestingly enough, its new building was constructed literally on the border between city and suburb (the line ran through the social hall). Consistent with the architecture of the time, the bima was an elevated stage several feet above congregant seating and positioned several yards forward from the front row of seating.
During the renovation project, the senior rabbi and I questioned whether the bima could be moved closer to the congregants, or even to a location that would be nearer to the center of the seating, to be more consistent with an increasingly participatory approach. The answer given by the architect was that, to do so, “you would have to dynamite the bima, since it was built in solid concrete.”
Fast forward to 2007. I was no longer the Jewish educator embarking on a new career, but now sat with an energetic, bright Jewish educator embarking on her career. As I finished telling her the above story, she stopped me and said, “That’s it! To be successful in this work today, we have to blow up the bima!”
Today’s American synagogue and its educational model evolved in the post World War II era. Among the features of the model were:
- Synagogues built for action that would occur in front of and above the congregants
- Bimas in which the rabbi and his role were the center of attention rather than the locations from which prayers or Torah reading was to be led.
- Similarly, the shulchan (reader’s table) was moved to a stage at the front of and above the congregation, removing prayer and Torah from the midst of the community and instead positioning both as if the services were a performance.
- School classrooms were built far from the center of the synagogue, often located in the basement or in a “school wing.” Construction of school areas was usually unattractive; cinder block walls painted in institutional greens and yellows were common.
Following reforms begun in the 1920’s and 30’s, synagogues tried to create “schools” that were modeled after American public schools, with
- graded sequential curricula
- teachers who were certified, ideally by institutions affiliated with the National Board of License and/or one of the Jewish seminaries or colleges
- learning that focused on textbooks
- Synagogues were built on membership dues
- Bar / Bat Mitzvah became a significant economic focus for synagogues --
- -- Synagogues required membership for Bar / Bat Mitzvah and for the educational program that would lead to Bar / Bat Mitzvah
- -- Synagogues required education through their own educational programs, thus assuring that families would be dues-paying synagogue members from the time that their oldest child reached school age until their youngest became a Bar / Bat Mitzvah
- -- Catering and room rental fees for Bar / Bat Mitzvah were significant sources of synagogue income
- National synagogue organizations based their budgets on synagogue membership, which in turn were increasingly built on Bar / Bat Mitzvah. As a result, national synagogue movements built their programs on supporting this synagogue model, not on challenging it.
Assumptions about Jewish community and family
- Most Jewish families were two-parent households, with stay-at-home moms
- Most families consisted of two Jewish parents
- Parents (or, at least grandparents) had significant Jewish life skills and commitments. “Hebrew School” was there to teach Jewish content in support of the Jewish living that resided in the families and communities of congregational members
- Families lived in close enough proximity to a synagogue, so that the requirement of 6 – 8 hour a week Hebrew schools were considered realistic, and drop-in synagogue youth lounges would always be well populated
During the period of the 1970’s – 1990’s, the previous assumptions about the Jewish community and family had become outdated, and in some cases, proven to be completely incorrect in a community that had undergone significant change.
- Interfaith families were on the rise
- Blended families were becoming more common
- Single parent families were on the increase
- Same-sex parents were becoming more common in the Jewish community
- The Jewish content of family life was no longer to be taken for granted
- The 1st and 2nd generation American Jews, who in many families provided the connection to Jewish learning and living, were gone.
- There was a marked increase in the number of Jewish children attending day schools. In many instances, these were the children of the most Jewishly committed families.
- Girls, who frequently did not participate fully in congregational schools, came to be fully included, as their inclusion in synagogue life was also becoming equal to that of boys
- The synagogue and its educational program were no longer simply supporting the Jewish identity of the home; they were increasingly charged with creating the Jewish identity of members’ homes. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis noted in the PBS series The Jewish Americans, people used to go to synagogue to be Jewish, now they come to synagogues to become Jewish.
By the turn of the millennium, not only families, but the community itself appeared to be in the process of redefinition, with research asserting that:
- Life was increasingly seen as a collection of individual choices, with the coherence and importance of community life and norms being challenged
- Judaism too, was seen as a choice for families, rather than an inherited commitment
- Jewish identity was being understood as complex and fluid over the course of the lifetime of an individual or family.
- Families were demanding Judaism and Jewish communities in which democratic and egalitarian values would guide religion, education and synagogue life
- Jewish education was being viewed as a commodity to be purchased in a competitive marketplace (Curiously enough, Chabad understands this trend and has responded to it better than any other organization)
- DIY (Do it Yourself) Judaism and Jewish education was being supported through resources ranging from lifecycle guides, to readily available guides on the Internet, to new ways of accessing Jewish knowledge and texts utilizing technology as well as new translations of ancient texts, designed with the individual, modern user in mind.
While these changes were occurring, the synagogue school was changing, but not in ways that would make it more effective:
- Rather than teaching children in support of family norms, the school had become a vehicle for training children to become change agents in their own families, encouraging them to introduce Jewish living and learning to parents who were often less knowledgeable than their children. Frequently the parents were themselves disinterested in what was being taught. Curiously enough, synagogues rarely acknowledged that their educational goals saw the family, not the students in their programs, as the real target of their educational efforts.
- With Jewish education being viewed as one of many choices of available leisure activities in which to involve children, and busy work schedules, parents demanded fewer contact hours for synagogue-based educational programs. At this writing, the mode average number of classroom contact hours in New York area synagogue schools has dropped to 4 hours per week.
- Except for synagogues located in close proximity to Jewish seminaries and universities, the demand that a synagogue’s teachers be licensed is non-existent. The prerequisite level of Hebrew or Judaic knowledge of teachers has fallen precipitately. Teachers who are not involved in Jewish communal or religious life are routinely hired; the professional literature even features discussions of the use of effective non-Jewish teachers for subjects such as Tanach / Bible.
- As the community has spread further into suburbia (as well as to rural areas), many programs designed to prop up the synagogue school model are less accessible (such as youth groups and adult education offerings)
- A young generation of “millennials” is redefining concepts of “affiliation” in today’s Jewish community. They are busily building new models of synagogues, of Jewish community, and of Jewish learning. They readily use technology in creating community. They comfortably live their Jewish lives and learn in spaces that are not inherently Jewish spaces. The synagogue schools now in place will not meet their needs as they become parents over the next decade.
Over the past 50 years, there have been innovative additions to the congregational education picture. These innovations however, were incremental in nature. They were intended to supplement the synagogue school, not to change the core model. Among the innovations were:
- Increased emphasis on Jewish camping
- Growth of Jewish youth groups
- Expansion of synagogue-based early childhood programs
- Increase in educational Israel trips
- Development of programs to educate the families of school students
- Efforts to build vision-based synagogue education
- Local efforts at improving professional leadership
The result: We are teaching Jewish students, who live in today’s world, but who will be part of an emerging future, using a model that is primarily based in the 1950’s.
Gary Marx, in his book Future Focused Leadership, suggests that to educate successfully today requires us not only to be cognizant of today’s realities but to be knowledgeable of the trends that are likely to define the future towards which we are educating our young. He suggests a list of 16 trends that are propelling us into the future, including an aging population, technological growth and more.
This futuristic orientation must be integrated into our thinking about Jewish education. In a community in which Jewish commitment is no longer a given, synagogue-based education has to propel itself ahead of the curve, rather than constantly trying to catch up with new realities. Improvement of synagogue-based education is good, but innovation – blowing up the bima – is better and is where we need to focus our efforts.
A recommended agenda for Jewish educational change includes the following:
- Just as younger Jews are “doing Jewish” in a variety of spaces, Jewish education must reinvent educational time and space, cognizant of where children and families are already at. Using the community as a classroom, utilizing the space in which people live - actually and virtually, using Facebook and other social networking tools as spaces for Jewish learning, are a few of many ways in which we can move from classroom-centered to community- and learner-centered spaces. Instead of competing with soccer and dance, what would it look like to have Jewish learning that linked to soccer (Jewish values of fairness) and dance (Jewish movement classes)?
- Just as Jewish living is not based in a classroom, Jewish learning should not be classroom-based. The entire Jewish community – neighborhoods, camps, retreat centers, and more – should be considered the larger “classroom” in which children and families learn. Rather than seeing informal and experiential education as ancillary to synagogue education with the classroom at the core, let's reimagine classroom-based learning as an adjunct to a more complete system of synagogue-based learning in which the classroom is a support for a rich system of Jewish experiential learning.
- The move from community-based Jewish education to synagogue-based education, which took place gradually in the mid-20th century, left out those who wanted their Jewish education in non-theological terms. The community needs to take seriously the needs of the vast majority of Jews – committed to their identities, but not to synagogue participation, and to provide Jewish educational experiences that will enable them, their children and their families to engage in learning Jewish content, values and behaviors. Let’s find new ways to reinvent community-based education, not just synagogue education. The picture should include the Jewish Community Center as a place of Jewish learning, as well as new community-based learning sites.
- The language we use in referring to Jewish learning that occurs in or through the synagogue needs to change. In a new model, the “school” metaphor will be replaced by “centers of Jewish learning and living.” The “teacher”, a classroom oriented term, will be replaced with a team of Jewish life coaches, guides, advisors and facilitators, who see their roles as Jewish educators in ways that are not limited by setting.
- We need to better plan for how to maximize resources that are already there. Small synagogue schools may make sense in small Jewish communities; they are irresponsible in large Jewish communities. Larger educational vehicles (including synagogues) can be built in order to provide larger budgets to hire the best teachers and to pay them appropriately, and to pay for approaches like technology, retreats and the like. Let’s knock down some walls, and combine synagogues for educational purposes.
- The target of synagogue-based education, and the outcomes that will be used as measures of success, can no longer be linked to children only. Even the time at which family outcomes could be measured for success is long past. Tomorrow’s Jewish education must be measured on three levels: for its impact on individuals, its impact on families and households and for impact on communities and community building.
- Rabbinical and cantorial training need to emphasize the facilitation roles that clergy will need to play in the synagogue-based learning of the future. They need to understand not just how to lead in traditional roles, but how to serve as Jewish life coaches and how to work effectively as part of the synagogue educational leadership team.
- Jewish educational professional leaders and lay leaders need to be developed with a vision towards the future and with skill sets that will support their creation of multidisciplinary educational models. In those models, the artificial lines that exist, separating classroom education, family learning, adult Jewish education, informal education, youth groups and Jewish camping, will be largely erased. To approach Jewish education in this way means to build capacity in synagogues in areas that include:
- Family dynamics
- Community organization
- Arts and music
- Experiential learning
- Coaching, mentoring
- Adult learning
- The next generation is likely to continue to re-invent Jewish community life. As a result, Jewish education has to take a constructivist approach in which learners actively make meaning of Jewish content, values and behaviors, and learn how to use these as tools in building community.
- Students must not only learn content, but learn how to process information critically. Their learning must teach them how to think and act in adaptive and creative ways.
- We are a generation that has become less involved in community; the children we are teaching are already inventing new ways to build community. Our curricula must include the tools that they need to shape the transformation and building of new compelling communities.
- The content of Jewish learning must be the skills, attitudes and knowledge that will best prepare children and youth to create a new Jewish world. Leadership skills and service learning that is grounded in Judaic content knowledge are critical components of future oriented Jewish learning. The best Jewish education of today should give children real-time experience in community building. These experiences can be as simple as evaluating organizations to be recipients of tzedaka funds through a group project, to developing goals and programs for educational retreats, to developing online communities to learn and share knowledge.
- Jewish education is a social and emotional process, as well as an intellectual one. Not only should the outcomes be social and communal in nature, but the methods used should emphasize the social interaction that is integral to all Jewish learning.
- Jewish literacy is important for children and adults. But more important than conveying an ever-expanding content knowledge is transmitting the ability to link to Jewish knowledge (and to knowledgeable Jews). [This may have been a goal of the editing of the Talmud 2000 years ago!]. That knowledge is still found in books, but is also increasingly found electronically, in multimedia and interactive forums. The knowledge of Judaism needs to be learned in a way that makes it relevant to the lives of learners and of community. Jewish texts should be viewed increasingly as a toolkit for leading lives imbued with Jewish thinking in the real world.
- Jewish religious movements served a purpose from 1850 until fairly recently. The next generation is already finding the nomenclature of Reform, Reconstructionist Conservative, and Orthodox to be too limiting. In a culture of individual choice, denominational affiliations are likely to become even more fluid. More and more, we are educating Jewish Americans, who see their Jewish involvement as transcending denominational labels. Our curriculum needs to reflect Jewish knowledge and the commonalities that Jews share, as we see a post-denominational Judaism unfolding before us.
- The Jewish community needs to provide support – both financial and human – for experimentation with new models of Jewish learning in both synagogue and community settings.
- Jewish educational organizations should establish incubators for new and innovative initiatives that have the potential for replication and that could replace the current model of synagogue education.
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Cohen, Steven M. & Eisen, Arnold M. The Sovereign Self: Jewish Identity in Post Modern America. Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2001.
Greenberg, Anna. OMG!: How Generation Y is redefining Faith in the iPod Era. New York: Reboot, 2005.
Greenberg, Anna. Grande Soy Vanilla Latte with Cinnamon, No Foam...Jewish Identity and Community in a Time of Unlimited Choices. New York: Reboot, 2006.
Horowitz, Bethamie. Connections and Journeys: Assessing Critical Opportunities for Enhancing Jewish Identity. New York: Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal of UJA Federation of New York, 2000.
Woocher, Jonathan; Rubin Ross, Renee & Woocher, Meredith. Redesigning Jewish Education for the 21st Century. New York: Lipman Kanfer Institute, Jewish Education Service of North America,
Marx, Gary. Future-Focused Leadership: Preparing Schools, Students, and Communities for Tomorrow's Realities. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2006.
Thanks to a group of colleagues that commented and added their thoughts to this piece. Please add your comments (as you would to any other blog posting), and include your name if you'd like to be credited in future versions of this piece.