Build back better for the Jewish community too

As we mark the one-year anniversary of the first case of the coronavirus in America, the Jewish community is looking ahead towards “the new normal” that will emerge after the pandemic. Non-profits, including many dedicated to Jewish education and engagement, still struggling from the relentless pressures of the past 12 month, are now focusing precious energy to create new initiatives that will help to “re-build” our community.

The reality, however, is that we are not merely rebuilding from the trauma of the past 12 months. Rather, the pandemic exposed many underlying issues in Jewish education and engagement that were present for decades. While the prospect of rebuilding from these deeper seeded issues is daunting, perhaps possible solutions to these problems were beneath the surface for decades too. Maybe many of us even knew they were there; there just was a lack of courage among those in the field for their implementation — until now.

The pandemic is an opportunity to free ourselves from the shackles of any practices and approaches to Jewish life that we do only because “that’s how we’ve always done it.” The Jewish community must seize this unprecedented moment as a time to pause, reflect, design, plan, and strategically implement a roadmap that will build a Jewish education and engagement infrastructure that reflects the Jews of today and tomorrow.

In 2012 my mentor Jonathan Woocher z”l, building off his previous work[1], outlined three design principles for which 21st century Jewish education ought to be built:

  1. Learners (and their families) should have an active role in shaping their own learning.
  2. Learning should be relevant to learners’ lives, reflecting their life circumstances, the society we live in, and responding to their authentic needs, questions, and aspirations.
  3. Learning should be designed to be readily accessible to learners and to encourage learners to move along personal trajectories of growth.[2]

To these design principles, which should continue to guide our learning, I offer five strategic imperatives that should become integral components of all good Jewish education.

Jewish education must always aspire to:

  1. Ensure that Jewish wisdom, knowledge, and values enhance the lives of individuals, the communities in which they live, and the world in which we inhabit.
  2. Be as inclusive and accessible to the broadest diversity of individuals and families who identify as being Jewish and always include their fellow travelers.
  3. Engage members of an individual’s family, recognizing that Jewish life is experienced, enhanced, and re-enforced in the home.
  4. Utilize technologies in order to enhance the learning experience to more effectively and efficiently achieve one’s desired educations outcomes.
  5. Recruit, develop and retain the best professionals to ensure that the holy task of Jewish education is facilitated by the best possible educators of our time.

In this moment, the Jewish community, and by extension Jewish education, must proactively create and build the ecosystem of meaningful engagement and learning for the Jewish people who exist today and tomorrow. We can stop trying to squeeze populations — who represent a wide range of backgrounds, beliefs, life interests, and other diverse characteristics — into a system that was predominantly developed for a population that existed (or that we thought existed) many decades ago. By focusing on these five strategic priorities, we can go a long way to collectively ensure that we are educating for the community that exists and that we want to see emerge in the future.

If the early 2000s heralded the “sovereign self,” leading to the Jewish community building an infrastructure of innovative non-profits catering to niche needs, the 2020’s are for appropriate reductions, collaboration, and economic consolidation. If individual entrepreneurship was a hallmark of the Jewish communal currency of the first part of this century, beyond the pandemic we must now embrace collective wisdom and resources. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that in our global world, the relationship and connections we develop and maintain truly matter, that the communities in which we live are not bounded geography, and that we will all only be able to thrive if we recognize, accept and respect not our independence, but our interdependence.

COVID is still here, and its not disappearing from our lives. But the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel can be seen. Now our community must do the difficult work of preparing for life beyond it. People will be tempted to search for answers, propose new initiatives, and clamor for headlines. The solutions to problems may in fact have been in front of us all along — maybe now we have the wherewithal to enact that which we have known to be true.

[1] Woocher, J. Woocher, M, Ross, R.R. (2001): Design Principles for Jewish Education: A Lippman Kanfer Institute Working Paper.

[2] Woocher, J. (2012): Reinventing Jewish Education for the 21st Century, Journal of Jewish Education, 78:3, 182-226.

About the Author
David Bryfman, PhD, is CEO of The Jewish Education Project in New York. He hosts the weekly livecast, Adapting: The Future of Jewish Education.
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