Summit Reflections

by Dr. Jonathan Woocher

It was an honor for me to have been invited to kick off the Education Summit at the recent URJ Biennial, and gratifying to hear from so many participants that my remarks struck a responsive chord.  That response, the huge number of people that attended the Summit, and the enthusiasm with which the Campaign for Youth Engagement was launched the next day all provided proof positive for the central thesis of my talk:  a revolution in Jewish education is already underway; our job is to clearly articulate its premises, draw out its implications, support its vanguard, and spread its fruits as widely as we can to learners and educators across North America.

Not a small challenge, but based on the energy and ideas I saw and heard at the Biennial, an achievable one.  Perhaps the greatest privilege of the work I now do is that I get to meet, learn from, and conspire with so many other “revolutionaries.”  I can tell you: they are everywhere throughout the Jewish education world.  They are parents, they are youth, they are educators, they are institutional leaders, they are funders.  What they all have in common is recognizing that we can do better – much better – than we are doing today, and that we need to.

But, the networks among these people remain thin, and the barriers to change remain great (sounds a little like Pirkei Avot to me).  Hence, the importance of all of us taking on the mantle of change agents.  Not that this is easy.  So, here are my eight rules for change agents (or revolutionaries, if you prefer):

1. BE BOLD – There is no point in aiming low.  Reality will always impose its compromises, so let’s start out with big dreams and visions.

2. BE PATIENT AND PERSISTENT – Big change doesn’t take place overnight.  It took the American Revolutionaries seven years to beat the British and another half dozen to figure out what to do with their victory.  Be in it for the long haul.

3. BE OBSERVANT – It’s easy to get intoxicated with our own ideas, but what we need to learn is out there in the world.  Keep your eyes – and your mind – open.  Watch for what is emerging, and, like a gardener, tend the shoots and clear away the weeds.

4. BE ADAPTIVE – Be willing to be surprised.  Be willing to change course, if need be.  Be a scavenger for resources (there will never be enough).  The route to the Promised Land is rarely direct (though hopefully we won’t spend forty years wandering around in the wilderness).

5. BE WILLING TO FAIL – But do it quickly and learn from it.  Knowing what won’t work is a step toward knowing what will.  Cultivate an “experimental mindset.”  Be honest – as the speakers at the CYE kick-off were.  But don’t be discouraged – and do recognize successes and what we already do well.  That’s a source of positive energy to make the changes that are needed.

6. BE A NETWORKER – Change is never an individual product.  There is power in the collective, but we need to work to build the connections that catalyze change.  And, don’t network only with your friends, or those of like mind.  Reach beyond your initial comfort zone.  That’s where the greatest potential lies.

7. BE A MEANING-MAKER – We help people to change by making change meaningful to them, by tying it to a greater purpose they can identify with.  Tell stories, share your own dreams and fears, help people to discover the joy and satisfaction that comes with commitment to something larger than themselves.

8. BE A MENTSCH – In the end, we follow people, not ideas.  Treat people with respect and dignity – even when we disagree strongly with them.  The Torah, Hillel, Kant, Buber, Camus and probably a thousand others all have it right:  people are ends, not means.  The change is important, but we won’t get there if we set aside the fundamental norms of decency and integrity.  We’re all in this together, and we need to support one another.

This all sounds a little too preachy, I fear.  But, I don’t really mean it that way.  It’s just that change is hard, and I, at least, find it helpful to give myself a pep talk every once in a while.

In fact, I loved the pep rally feel of the CYE kick-off.  Yes, it was a bit hokey.  But, it was also simultaneously serious and playful, and to me, that’s the only spirit in which to approach this work.  So, perhaps that needs to be my 9th rule for change:  HAVE FUN.  One of Judaism’s great insights is that we are meant to be joyful, to celebrate, even to cut loose once in a while (at a minimum every fall, spring, and at every wedding).  The Hasidim got this; so should we.

The Education Summit was an occasion for some serious thinking about Jewish education’s future, but also a wonderful celebration of its present and most of all, its people.  I came away more convinced than ever that there is lots to do, but – happily – many wonderful people to do it with.

I invite you to continue the conversation by becoming a member of the Jewish Education Change Network,

Dr. JonathanWoocher is the Chief Ideas Officer and Director of the Lippman KanferInstitute at JESNA.


Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email
Guest Blogger

About Guest Blogger accepts submissions for consideration. Send your posts to Please include biographical information, including your affiliation with any Reform congregation or institution.

2 Responses to “Summit Reflections”

  1. avatar

    To make a minyan, given our emphasis on building community, I suggest a 10th rule for change.

    Be Hopeful* – It is profoundly Jewish to see the real obstacles in our path, but nevertheless to believe that we have the power to surmount them (see 2 of the 12 scouts, Joshua and Caleb, in Numbers 13). We need to believe that we can achieve our goals although they are ambitious and even daunting. Youth engagement and empowerment are not only desirable goals, they are also possible to achieve. *Rabbi Jonathan Sacks distinguishes between ‘optimism’, the belief that things can get better and ‘hope’ the belief that we can make things better.

  2. avatar

    These are great guideposts and suggestions, and they do make me feel hopeful and energized. I appreciate that you’ve included parents and youth in your ‘revolutionaries’, and highlighted the need to network and be in dialogue with one another. At a moment of cultural revolution (how generations differ, moving to multiple cities and living away from extended family, individual empowerment, etc.), the forces influencing how individuals and families engage in Jewish education are also changing rapidly. Some of our most basic assumptions must be questioned. To do so means to embody many of the things you’ve noted — being bold, being observant and taking risks. Kol hakavod to Jonathan and the URJ for such a successful program.

Leave a Reply