Monday, May 4, 2009

My Jewish Education Heresy

I've never feared being the gadfly, or being the one who points out the emperor's nakedness.

So I'm finally going to come out and say out loud what I've been thinking for some time.

We need to completely divorce and separate Jewish supplemental education from the synagogues and other extant institutions.

The synagogue is a dinosaur. So is the synagogue/clergy model we use, largely shaped by what we observed our Protestant neighbors doing. Rather than create the uniquely American Judaism that I.M. Wise and others sought, American Protestantism shaped and created American Judaism. It's time to move on. Yes, this will significantly change the role of clergy. With all due respect to my rabbinical and cantorial friends, I think we have tried to turn our clergy into something they were never meant to to be. In the process, we have forced them to be our surrogate Jews, and given ourselves license to be lazy. We will always need rabbis and hazzanim. We need their advice, their understandings of the intricacies of Jewish law. We will need their spiritual counsel. We will need their particular expertise. We need them to help our communities make appropriate choices. We probably won't need them as pseudo-ministers, or as titular heads of our churches cum synagogues.

We also need to divorce Jewish education from dependency on secular models of education. What works in secular schools (and what doesn't work) is not the battle we should be fighting in Jewish education. Yes, utilize all the pedagogy and technique we can from the realm of public/private secular education, but it is time to abandon the standard classroom/school model. It barely works for secular education, and for Jewish education it has not proven particularly efficacious.

Imagine, for a moment, a new kind of independent Jewish supplemental education program. I am reluctant to even use the word "school" to describe it.

Imagine a supplemental Jewish education program that incorporates Jewish learning with music lessons and ensembles, soccer and other sports, ballet and other dance and gymnastics, theater and other arts, chess and other games, journalism, and all the many other activities with which current supplemental schools compete with for student time.

Imagine a program that offers learning opportunities 7 days a week, at all sorts of times and hours. That includes Shabbat-because there are Jews who will choose Shabbat as their preferred time for Jewish learning.

Imagine a program that includes worship opportunities not centered around the same core group of attendees and leaders, but that flow and dynamically change, shaped by the people that happen to be present.

Imagine a program that can handle both irregular drop-in attendees as well as regular attendees, making them feel equally welcome and comfortable.

Imagine a program that allows parents to participate on their own terms - not compelling their participation, yet at the same time working openly and through programming to instill the desire to participate in parents (yet at the same time not making them feel guilty when they choose to not participate.)

Imagine a program that is after-school care, after-school activities, Jewish camp, and Jewish learning, all rolled into one.

Imagine a program that gets all the kids from their secular schools to the program site, using busses, carpools, etc.

Imagine a program in which, with the help of an advisor, a family can structure and create Jewish learning experiences for their children (and for the whole family) with goals of their choosing, on a schedule of their choosing, frequency of their choosing, etc. Imagine a program in which there is constant contact between the program and the family, getting feedback, reporting on what is being studies, pointing to other resources, and, as necessary, suggesting changes and adaptations to the chosen learning path.

I can imagine it all. Can you?


This raises lots of questions. I'm making an initial attempt at a FAQ here, and I'll keep adding to it.

1. Why can't this be done in a synagogue, or within a movemental framework? It can, but the framework will be more limited. Even synagogues with the "biggest tents" still have their limiting policies and practices. And, of course, they require membership.

2. How can you accommodate b'nai mitzvah training and ceremonies without a synagogue? Well, you don't need a synagogue for many Jewish lifecycle events, do you? You don't even need a (gasp!) rabbi to get married, have a bris, etc!  A student, properly prepared, is called to the Torah, surrounded by friends and family and well-wishers. That can happen anywhere, any time. (Ooh-another heresy-having a service recognizing a student becoming bar/bat mitzvah that isn't held on Shabbat.) Some may prefer to work, at the very least, within the Mon/Thu/Shabbat cycle when Torah is normally read. Yet others may be bold enough to try other days.

3. How do you accommodate across movemental beliefs and practices? What about things like kashrut? I believe that as long as it is made clear for each and every event, activity, etc. what level of religious observance/praxis is being followed, people will be able to choose for themselves. There may indeed be times when sticking within the boundaries of traditional practice is the best solution. Yet it may not always be the appropriate solution. Situational decision-making will be required.

4. "I learned in a supplemental Jewish school utilizing classic classroom pedagogy, and I turned out OK. What's wrong with that style?" The simple truth is that there have and always will be students who will learn Judaism best in the same way they learn math and spelling and geography. So this envisioned program would certainly incorporate its share of that style of learning, so it can meet the needs of all types of learners. However, they would be only a component of the learning model, and not the primary basis of it. It's not a "school" but a learning environment in which one will find a variety of approaches to teaching and learning, both formal, informal, and yet-to-be-devised.

5. "How would such an institution support itself, in the absence of support from a parent institution like a synagogue? We all know that fw supplemental schools pay their own way, and that synagogues supplement them heavily." That's a fair question and one for which I have not yet formulated a vision. Financing is not my area of expertise, and I'd love to have some input and ideas on how to fund such a Jewish learning program.

Also, I believe that, based on what I see happening in the area of Jewish philanthropy and patterns of Jewish giving among those not rich enough to be considered philanthropic, communities will band together to insure that Jewish education is being provided for them.

6. "Won't the synagogues, JCCs, etc. see you as competition, and seek to undermine your success?" I may be completely wrong about synagogues being a dinosaur. Maybe they will survive and successfully reinvent themselves. So much the better. Nevertheless, there is a large constituency out there that isn't affiliated, or only marginally affiliated, or the "tolerant of affiliation for now as the only viable option." So I expect there is now, and will be for the foreseeable future, a constituency for such a program. Should my conjectures that the synagogue as we know it will fade away turn out to become reality, then this new model will be a necessity-and yes, it will bump heads with synagogues as they go through their death throes. I, for one, will work to keep those bumps civil.

7. "Nobody can do everything well. How do you propose to incorporate things like soccer, drama, music, chess, etc.?" Yes, that is correct. Nobody can do everything well. The key is to identify and connect with the appropriate resources. There are day schools that use the facilities of the local "Y" (and I mean YMCA, not YMHA) as their phys ed program. All sorts of cooperative ventures are possible. And there are plenty of Jewish dance teachers, soccer coaches, chess club advisors, etc. out there.

8. "Where would the physical space for such a program come from? Synagogues already have the space. Why create new spaces?" If my conjectures about the future of synagogues are right, then there will be plenty of available synagogue buildings to acquire. Yet, that may be a long time in coming. Ventures like this can start small-even be held in someone's house, a storefront, etc. If the programs work and attract people, they will expand and create or acquire facilities as necessary.

9. "Why not just fix what we've got? There are successful supplemental schools, and reports that help us identify what characterizes such schools." I've been working in supplemental Jewish schools for almost 3 decades now. There are lots of great things going on in these programs. Despite those best efforts, the decline in enrollment, funding, and interest continues. Expectations get lower every year. (There are those who say that if we just keep the expectations high, we can stem the tide. To them I say that the wave has already crested. The die are cast. The moving hand has written and moved on. Keeping the expectations high will work, if we are satisfied to keep only a small core, a tiny fraction of our present already dismal enrollments. I'm not yet ready to cast my lot with the "in-reach only" folks. If a new Judaism is to be built, it needs to include all Jews.)

So offer your comments, your rebuttals, etc. I'll do my best to respond.

1 comment:

homeshuling said...

Love your ideas. For our family, Jewish Day School is the closest we can get to that right now, so that's where I've put my tuition dollars. It doesn't do it all, but it does a lot.