By Rabbi Phil Warmflash and Anna Marx/JNS.org
Amid the numerous studies and analyses regarding Jewish American life, a simple fact remains: part-time Jewish education is the most popular vehicle for Jewish education in North America. Whenever and wherever parents choose Jewish education for their children, we have a communal responsibility to devote the necessary time and resources to deliver dynamic, effective learning experiences.
The only way we can do this is by creating space for conversations and knowledge-sharing around innovative new education models. That also means making the necessary investments to further models that already have proved successful.
On the ground, these new models resonate with today’s learners and their families. Such educational approaches build relationships between families, integrate technology, and move the learning outside of classroom walls. This is big change we’re talking about, and big change takes partnerships and collaboration across the Jewish community—partnerships with synagogue professionals and lay leaders, educational agencies, funders, and most importantly, parents.
Nancy Parkes, director of congregational learning at the Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., recently offered important recommendations to advance the congregational educational experience. We would like to call attention to two of her suggestions: “stop the negative narrative” and “be our partners.” Opting for part-time “supplementary” Jewish education has been a very good choice—indeed, the right choice—for thousands of families. But it’s time to tell a new story. One of experience, of possibility, of real impact. It’s time to work together.
Five Jewish education agencies from around the country—including New York, Cleveland, Houston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco—are engaged in these important efforts through Shinui: the Network for Innovation in Part-Time Education, created with the support of the Covenant Foundation. The stories coming out of our communities are inspiring real change that other communities can model and adapt.
One example of an innovative model is the Rimon Initiative at Philadelphia’s Temple Sholom, whose premise is to offer students project-based chugim (electives). One parent comments, “My son retains so much more because teachers now focus on a few core areas for a longer period of time. And the fact that he can choose a chug makes for a more personal experience and gives him a chance to explore a subject that he wants to.”
In San Francisco, Shalom Explorers is a vehicle for families to form neighborhood learning groups and customize individual lesson plans. Now in its second year, the initiative has expanded to multiple sites in the Bay Area. An Explorer parent says, “Shalom Explorers provides parents with an amazing toolkit of resources to bring great lesson plans to life. We were able to select the activities and content that worked for our group of families, and the children were able to learn in fun and exciting ways—through drama, art projects, outdoor activities, and more.”
These stories show that part-time Jewish education presents one of the greatest opportunities to engage, inspire, and connect with families. No longer are students learning prayers and stories simply to “check them off the list.” Instead, educators across the country are wrestling with how the learning experiences they offer can best support children and their families, and make a true difference in their lives. In those precious few hours of part-time programs, teachers are parents’ partners in raising children to become mensches.
With this understanding, more and more congregations around the country are trying new models to invigorate the educational experiences they offer. The Jewish community still must do more to help this change happen in a serious, sustainable manner. Fortunately, many are answering this call, and important changes are happening in Jewish education: learning experiences that involve the entire family, deepen connections to Israel, teach Hebrew in more meaningful and relevant ways, and bring the summer camp experience into our schools.
We see these changes in the Shinui-affiliated communities, and we invite others to be a part of this change—to help build today’s narrative of part-time Jewish education. Together, we can create and sustain major changes across the country.
Rabbi Phil Warmflash is executive director of the Jewish Learning Venture in Philadelphia. Anna Marx is project director of Shinui.