PEW, Jewish education and musings

The 2013 General Assembly which took place in Jerusalem (as it does every 10 years) centered on the recent reports of the PEW survey which presented some shocks and surprises to the Jewish world.

If you’re reading this article, chances are that you’ve already internalized the summary of the PEW report – six out of ten Jews who married after the year 2000 married non-Jews, for most American Jews, ancestry and culture matter more than religion, there are so many people who don’t identify as “Jewish” but rather have a “Jewish affinity” that the study created a separate category for them and – the one that jumped out at me – American Jewish self-identification has changed so much in the past 50 years that the study discussed was titled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” rather than “A Portrait of American Jews.” The juxtaposition of the noun and adjective says it all.

There’s so much to say about this report that a decade of analysis won’t suffice, but I was disturbed to hear that there was more discussion at the GA on the need for Jewish pluralism than there was about the need to address the issues that have led to the ailing Jewish American/American Jewish community.

A week or two after the release of the PEW study I had the opportunity to hear a webinar via the Jewish Education Project. The featured educators presented their first impressions of the impact of the survey on American Jewish education. Jonathan Woocher of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah summarized the educators’ assessments by advising the Jewish education community that they shouldn’t panic. These results, he noted, show that the American Jewish community shows resilience to a changing world and even unaffiliated Jews exhibit a generally positive disposition towards their Jewish heritage.

There was no disagreement, however, about the importance that Jewish education plays in creating a strong and affirming Jewish identity among all Jews. A recent longitudinal PEJE report compares the different types of Jewish education with the students’ subsequent religious practices, in-marriages, feelings of affinity for Israel, friendships with other Jews, synagogue membership and connection to Judaism. While the subject is complex and the findings are complicated, it’s clear that a Jewish education, particularly a day school education, impacts strongly on an individual’s future Jewish identity.

Even within the Jewish education community there are debates as to how to maintain schools’ high standards, keep costs down and guide students towards the development of strong Jewish identities. This debate involves all Jewish schools including schools affiliated with the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements as well as “Community” schools.

While no one has all the answers to these issues both public and private organizations have suggestions and tips to offer the Jewish educational world:

  • Promote teacher training programs that prepare teachers for Jewish education in the 21st century. Degree-programs such as those offered by the London School of Jewish Studies, Yeshiva University’s Azrieli School, the JTS Davidson School and the HUC’s Jewish Studies Masters program focus on the unique needs of Jewish schools and preparing teachers to meet those specific needs.
  • Facilitate more teacher mentoring programs. There are a number of formal and informal teacher mentoring programs, including the JEDLAB Facebook community and the Jerusalem EdTech Solutions (JETS Israel) eCom community that enable teachers to learn from each other, crowdsource for help and expand their horizons within the Jewish educational framework. Jewish education involves much more than Jewish teachers teaching the material and the teachers should be trained accordingly.
  • Expand e-learning. Online educational opportunities enable kids to learn from their own homes as they engage with other kids of similar backgrounds and learning levels. Both Chabad and JConnecTLearning offer engaging online Hebrew School classes  for all ages.
  • Dan L’Kav Zechut. Show appreciation for the teachers. Jewish education awards, such as the Grinspoon-Steinhardt awards, the Helen Dillar award and the Milken Foundation‘s Jewish Education Award demonstrates that the community appreciates and values the efforts of Jewish educators who not only educate our children but also serve as community leaders.
  • Promote experiential Judaism and social interaction whenever possible. When surveyed, many Jewish adults point to their youth groups and camp experiences as the defining events of their childhood and teen years that molded their Jewish identity and cemented their affiliation with the Jewish community.
About the Author
Laurie Rappeport has been living in Safed for 28 years. She worked in the Tzfat Tourist Information Center for 13 years and continues to be active in tourism to Tzfat and northern Israel. Laurie works as a freelance writer and teaches about Israel and Jewish subjects online.
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