Jewish Education: The Future is Today

by Robin Eisenberg

Dr. Charles Edelsberg’s recent blog post begins with a statement about his being “wary of invitations to predict the future.” My sense is that much that is addressed in his post is not about the future: It is now! The points raised here can be heard in our congregational committee and staff meetings, as well as in parking lots and coffee shops.

The recurring theme of Dr. Edelsberg’s post calls for those of us who are educational leaders, dedicated congregational leaders, and members of Reform congregations to radically adjust our mindset. He highlights the need to pay attention to individuals who are seeking personal meaning. In my world, I immediately jump to the logistics of how to facilitate helping our members to find personal meaning.

We must keep in mind that our congregants comprise multiple identities, all working at the same time, sometimes in concert and sometimes in opposition. Our traditional congregational school system needs to be reinvented for some, while others are happy with the current structure because it works for them. We continually attempt to remove, or at least lower the barriers to give our congregants the opportunity to discover their own personal meaning. We must look at a reallocation of both financial resources and personnel, in order to create a variety of models to address today’s realities.

One of the challenges I face is ensuring personal relevance to learners of all ages while creating and nourishing opportunities for relationships to develop – not just the global relationships, but getting to know the people who live down the street. I constantly strive to strike a balance between these two key goals. We are faced with demands to accommodate a variety of schedules, learning styles, and interests. At the same time, we must make our programs relevant, challenging, and worthwhile. And if we haven’t established personal connections with others, their experience is not nearly as fulfilling.

In order to address the issues of personal relevance and individual needs we have created new learning models. We now offer a menu of learning options for children in two locations 10 miles apart. They include:

  1. A one-day option (Sunday 9:30 am-1:30pm)
  2. A traditional two-day program (Sunday plus a midweek day)
  3. Individual plans (using technology with staff support)
  4. A combination of classes/options to gain credit while incorporating Jewish activities in daily life
  5. A combination of classes/retreats for post-b’nai mitzvah students

The classrooms on our Beck Family Campus are equipped with SMART boards, and our teachers are encouraged to bring the world into their classrooms by using the web and the many other resources available. Our b’nai mitzvah program encourages families to customize their service by planning a mitzvah project that the child is passionate about. For adults, we offer a variety of standard classes, in addition to targeted learning opportunities for doctors and lawyers that has been quite successful.

Our goal is to provide multiple entry points for congregants and potential congregants of all ages. Our menu of learning options starts to address the need for individualization and relevance, but it remains a challenge to figure out how to ensure the development of significant personal relationships. We have widened our options outside the classroom with retreats and expanded youth activities, and are now considering broadening our adult interest groups from our current Knit and Nosh with a biking group and dinner club.

When all is said and done, I agree with most of Dr. Edelsberg’s points. Where I take issue is that I believe the future is today!

Robin Eisenberg, RJE, is the Director of Jewish Learning and Living at Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, FL.

This post is part of our Virtual Symposium on Jewish EducationRead the rest of the posts submitted by Reform Jewish educators across the Movement.

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4 Responses to “Jewish Education: The Future is Today”

  1. avatar

    As always, you are right on target!
    Our youth, our students, are NOT our
    future…they are our “PRESENT”! They
    are our “GIFT” to the future….

  2. avatar

    These are great ideas. And I agree 1000% that personal relationships are key…but not just with age-mates and teachers. That only goes so far. There is an additional, crucial, challenge: to move the “entry points” to places where youth see adults engaging in real life-enriching, life-changing Judaism and are welcomed into that lifelong Jewish community. And that means, of course, that we need life-enriching, life-changing Judaism happening for adults so the kids have something to grow into. We can change kids’ education until we’re blue in the face, but it won’t matter to them in the end unless they see adult Jewish life that calls them.

    For that reason, I particularly applaud the idea of credit for Judaism in daily life and think that has the best chance for making positive change.

    Temple Micah in DC has been experimenting with “Machon Micah,” an all-age institute for learning and worship. It’s breaking down some thought barriers and changing some dynamics. But there’s still a long way to go, I think, toward building the kind of all-age relationships that matter in the long run.

  3. avatar


    Thanks for your thoughtful post. We at the Experiment in Congregational Education agree that the future is today. We’ve been working with congregations who recognize that for almost two decades. If you are a congregation looking to innovate, here are five questions that we’ve used with congregations who want to create deep and lasting change in their children’s education programs.

    1. How can we connect Jewish learning to Jewish living? This is different than the typical reach for “experiential learning.” It means seeking meaning in learning because it is directly connected to what we do as Jews. In addition to asking “what should the learner be able to do as a result of this learning” (recite Shabbat blessings), let’s ask “what is the learner is doing.” And answer it by including in learning real experiences that happen within the education program itself (saying the Shabbat blessings on Shabbat).

    2. What role do parents play in their children’s learning? We know that the answer is more than drive them to Sunday school, but what more is there. On one hand, how can we think creatively about what even busy parents can do? On the other hand, why is it that many of our parents are willing to spend hours watching their children at soccer or Little League games, but claim that they have no time to participate in their children’s Jewish life? How do we need to change?

    3. What role does Jewish memory play in children’s education? This question can be looked at in a personal sense – what do we expect children to remember 20 years from now when they reflect on their Jewish education – and in the global sense – what role does the Jewish narrative play in creating a sense of belonging to something that is much bigger than ourselves and our family? On the personal level, the question about memory allows us to detach ourselves from the need to teach more content and instead make sure that the environment and the acts are compelling – that’s what people remember. On the global level, the power of connection to a history and a people can take us out of the narrowly defined (American) realm of Judaism as a religion and open us up to new possibilities.

    4. What role does community play? Again, a question at two levels. First, how can we make sure that children experience their Jewish education in the same way that Jews experience Judaism – in a community of practitioners devoted to a common cause. Second, how do we ensure that children building meaningful, sacred relationships with their co-learners, which we know are critical as they enter stressful teenage years?

    5. What role does the learner play in creating their own experience? In some congregations this is stated as choice or flexibility, and it means that a family can choose among several different tracks or programs for participation. In other congregations it can mean that curriculum is determined by the needs of families in that community. In either case, it is a large step in the direction of ensuring that learning goes beyond knowledge acquisition to include meaning-making learning is an objective.

    We look forward to more discussion about these issues and more questions to add to the list.

    Amy Asin
    Associate Director, The Experiment in Congregational Education

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