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.