Unprecedented Opportunity: The Future of Reform Jewish Education

This post is the first in our Virtual Symposium on Jewish Education. Each day this week, we’ll feature posts from Reform Jewish educators responding to this piece and discussing the future of Jewish education.

by Dr. Charles Edelsberg

I am wary of invitations to predict the future… of anything. While I am a longtime student of literature on the future of education, dating back nearly four decades to my public school days (when I frequently consulted the works of Marvin Cetron, Paul Ehrlich, John Naisbitt, and Alvin Toffler), I seem to have an uncanny knack for miscalculating what the future will bring.

It has taken me years to learn to distinguish between fads and trends. It requires a great deal of careful study to separate out the pundits from the pontificators, an activity I take seriously. But I am no oracle. Thus comments I offer below are issued with a healthy dose of trepidation.

First, I believe any prognostication about the future of Reform Jewish education must begin with the understanding that education does not equal schooling. In fact, the very place of Jewish institutions as centers of Jewish teaching and learning – day and congregational schools perhaps most prominent among them – must be called into question by any earnest futurist. The fact of the matter is that profound revolutions in information and communications technologies are accelerating deep learning outside of formal institutional settings – occurring in real time, all the time.

Secondly, the basis on which Reform Judaism as a movement defines itself has a critical relationship to the nature, shape, and future forms of education that it will promulgate.

With these two assumptions in mind, I would suggest the following seven phenomenon as potentially seminal to a robust Jewish Reform education future:

  • Any and all teaching must be designed with personal relevance to the learner foremost in mind.
  • Platforms that facilitate self-directed learning will maximize engagement.
  • Multimedia simulations will become increasingly prevalent as a means to engender learning.
  • To the extent Reform Judaism successfully differentiates and “brands” the values it represents –  for example, religious pluralism, social action and gender equity – the greater the likelihood the Movement will pull members into educational engagement with its distinctive Reform Jewish beliefs, values, and practices.
  • Reform Jews’ relationships with Jews in Israel and around the world will become a more prominent part of individual Jewish identity.
  • Jewish learning capitalizing on burgeoning interest in the environment; the food movement; Jewish literature, film, art, music and dance beckons Reform Jewish educators to meaningfully engage their members in “life-centered” Jewish education (Redesigning Jewish Education for the 21st Century: A Lippman Kanfer Institute Working Paper, p. 20).
  • In anticipating that humans will live longer and enjoy better health, even in the later years of their existence, lifelong learning should be integral to the future of Reform Jewish education.

In a global world, there is unprecedented opportunity for relationship-building, interconnectedness, learning, and meaning-making between and among Reform Jews across the globe.

Reform Judaism is exceptionally rich in its social capital. Its committed organizational leadership, charismatic rabbis and educators, cadre of successful overnight camp leaders, social activists and the like make for a formidable pool of talent. The Movement is well-positioned to optimize its educational effort as the shift in the world from one “where value is concentrated in [didactic] transactions to one where value resides in large [dynamic] networks of long-term relationships” (page 55 of The Power of Pull by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, Lang Davison).

Arguably, we live in a post-denomination era. Democratized access to information and the decentralizing of sources of conventional authority pose a daunting challenge to the Jewish denominational movements. Reform Judaism is a movement built on renewal of religious traditions, creative adaption of Jewish customs, and continuing education of Movement members. As Rabbi David Ellenson indicates in his position paper “The Future of Jewish Education from the Reform Perspective,” Jewish education must ultimately be “generative – inspiring Jews to create and support vibrant Jewish communities that sustain Jewish life.”

Charles (Chip) Edelsberg, Ph.D. is the founding executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, a $700 million dollar private foundation whose mission is to support education of Jewish youth in the United States – one of the largest foundations of its type in North America.

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9 Responses to “Unprecedented Opportunity: The Future of Reform Jewish Education”

  1. avatar

    If Reform Jews are to engage in an educational enterprise “where value resides in large [dynamic] networks of long-term relationships,” seems to me one crucial step is to help Reform Jews better relate to the LONG-term relationships already alive in Jewish learning over the centuries: There has been much struggling with sacred text by (non-Reform) liberal Jews, e.g., which should be incorporated into the network, along with the ancient texts to which it is linked and the comments of many other Jews over millenia.

    It is also essential that the attempt to “brand” Reform learning does not try to present Reform Judaism as the only (or “best) Movement interested or active in pluralism, gender equity, or social justice.

    In short, I believe the only way for Reform Jewish teaching to truly distinguish itself is by re-activating the vibrant links to non-Reform Jewish thinking that once drove the original reformers: We have to know and “link to” what has come before — and to what is happening in other Jewish communities — in order for Reform Jews to be truly educated and for Reform as a Movement to offer Judaism anything valuable for the future.

  2. avatar

    Chip – I think you’re right on here. And I’m pleased to see big, bold and simple statements around which we can have deeper conversations. I too latched on to your quote from The Power Of Pull, “where value is concentrated in [didactic] transactions to one where value resides in large [dynamic] networks of long-term relationships”.

    I am 100% sure that the “transactional” nature of much Jewish education (and synagogue life in general – membership, programs) is a major liability for Jewish education (and life, and community, and institutions), as it reinforces the actions of the individual, rather than the identity and collective responsibility of the community. If nothing else, I believe if we orient ourselves around this one principle, much else will follow.

    Darim is launching a blog series (bit.ly/NjPC3e) this fall around the idea of becoming “Connected Congregations”, which emphasize relationships over programs. I am thrilled to see many voices and venues supporting this idea. Kol hakavod.

  3. avatar

    Dr. Edelsberg writes: “Multimedia simulations will become increasingly prevalent as a means to engender learning.” This is at the heart of my work at ConverJent and in the PhD program in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU. Simulations and games for learning for inside and out of the classroom will be key in the coming years. There is tremendous opportunity for Reform Judaism to open its arms to digital and analog (board, card, and camp, or backyard) games designed for learning – not just trivia, but ethical wrestling, Jewish decision making, and community values. A recent Torah Games article about ConverJent in the The Forward: http://bit.ly/QSsdpH We must support Jewish Games and Simulations for learning if we want to bring Jewish Education into the 21st century.

  4. avatar

    We’ve gotten so used to underachievement in Jewish education that we’ve forgotten how to set great goals. While visionary educators outside of the Jewish world speak of creating tools and methods that can educate a billion people, we’re still asking how we can make school more like camp for the small fraction of Jewish kids who attend. There is no relevant future of Jewish education until we agree on some basics we’ve long avoided: what should a Jew know, what are the fundamentals of Jewish literacy, and how much can we demand of Jewish families and individuals in their commitment to Jewish education.


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