Changing the Dynamic of Reform Jewish Education



The Jewish month of Elul is the perfect time for this symposium, and not just because  synagogues are opening of their religious school doors to young people and their parents for another year of Jewish learning. Elul is the very season of return. This month, in anticipation of the new year, we pause to recommit ourselves, communally and individually, to the enterprise of Jewish life and learning. So it’s the perfect time not only to imagine the future, but also to examine ways to inspire the next generation to discover joy in Jewish learning.

Dr. Charles Edelsberg’s recent essay, characteristically, is both exciting and challenging. Jewish learning in the future, Reform or otherwise, will need to be more personal, more multimedia- and tech-savvy, and increasingly positioned as a lifelong endeavor. But the point that resonated most with me, based on the insight of The Power of Pull, is that to succeed, Jewish education will need to be relationship-based, rather than didactic and transactional.

Let’s be honest about the past and present of Reform Jewish education: Although there are important pockets of innovation, the synagogue religious school is not fundamentally different than it was one or even two generations ago. Most temples have “formal” classrooms, teachers, and students, and curricula that lead to bar and bat mitzvah. Thankfully, we have made enormous strides with family education, retreats, and “informal education,” both in and out of the classroom. And yet, we are still, overwhelmingly, organized around what Dr. Edelsberg’s calls “schooling” as opposed to education. He rightly argues that the shifts in information and communication call into question the very role of the formal school, forcing us to ask this critical question: What is the role of formal schooling in today’s 24/7, completely connected environment?

I would take it one step further.

Despite enormously creative innovation and experimentation, Reform Jewish education today is, by some measure, failing. Fifty percent of teens who become bar and bat mitzvah drop out of synagogue participation by tenth grade, and 80 percent drop out by their senior year. Why does that matter? Over and above the question of how much “content knowledge” students retain (my hunch is that it’s not much), the alienation from Jewish communal participation that this schooling continues to engender should alarm us.

That’s why the language of The Power of Pull resonates with me. Over and over again, when asked why they continue to engage in Jewish communal life, involved teens, parents, and others describe the inspiration created by key relationships with those who kept them engaged. They describe a dynamic rabbi, a loving cantor, an inspiring teacher, a camp counselor or a youth advisor, a peer mentor, or someone else in their social or educational network who invited and sustained their participation. They describe moving experiences shared with others and memorable moments they will never forget. Although I don’t remember much of what I learned in all those years of Sunday school, I certainly do remember the wonderful people and the inspiring experiences we shared.

The Reform Movement launched the Campaign for Youth Engagement (CYE) with this paramount insight as a baseline assumption: In the context of inspiring Jewish experiences, we need to foster stronger and deeper relationships with and among teens, parents, and families, in order to turn the dropout rate on its head. No one is more committed to the CYE than are the members of the National Association of Temple Educators, who yearn to change the dynamic and are willing to test new modes aggressively.

There are some compelling examples of success across the Reform Movement. Congregations such as B’nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, VA, Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA, and Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC, retain nearly 100 percent of their teens through high school because they have elevated learning through individual relationships and transformative experiences. As Rabbi Fred Guttman of Greensboro likes to say, “Youth engagement is not a curriculum; it’s the curriculum.” To be sure, there are other examples – but not nearly enough.

So what’s the implication for the future of Reform Jewish education? Perhaps this will be the generation that ends “schooling” in favor of new models of engaged, inspired learning and community. This fall, the URJ and HUC-JIR jointly launched the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution as one step toward that possibility. If we are going to be honest about synagogue education, let’s be honest too, about bar and bat mitzvah. After all, that is now the end game for so many of our kids. Shouldn’t our goal be to have such a creative and exciting build up to the b’nai mitzvah experience – and to have a once-in-a-lifetime transformative experience of the event itself so that our young people will not abandon our synagogues afterward, but rather yearn to continue onward? As Dr. Isa Aron explained when we first started imagining the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution: If we can change that, we might be able to change everything.

Now more than ever, during these sacred days of renewal and return, the time has come to focus on how we bring people (parents and their children) into relationships with one another and with talented, engaging facilitators of Jewish learning who will inspire and promote just that—not more “schooling.” How appropriate that now, on the brink of the new year, we can lay the groundwork for such a critical new beginning.

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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Rabbi Jonah Pesner

About Rabbi Jonah Pesner

Rabbi Jonah Pesner is Senior Vice President of the URJ. Rabbi Pesner is also the founding Director of Just Congregations. He works with synagogues pursuing social justice across the country and teaches on all three campuses of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He has led efforts to engage thousands of members of congregations to join together in successful campaigns for health care access, affordable housing, public education and other social action initiatives.

3 Responses to “Changing the Dynamic of Reform Jewish Education”

  1. Gary Bretton-Granatoor
    Gary Bretton-Granatoor Reply September 13, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    I would like to suggest that we all banish the term “informal education” — when we teach at camp or TYGs or conclaves we should not be any less prepared and thoughtful than any other lesson we offer. What we strive to offer is “Formal Education in Informal Settings.” If we change our mindset towards education in informal settings, we will raise the bar — which we MUST do.

  2. avatar

    Great article, rabbi. Temple Shalom also has an exciting new program beginning this year…

  3. avatar

    Rabbi Pesner’s call to action to create deep relationships that lead to high levels of retention is inspiring. He provides us with one of the things we need to believe that change is possible – role models. We’d like to offer a different angle on the same answer. In some communities we have worked with at The Experiment in Congregational Education, the question of teen retention is being challenged, not just by lack of relationship, lack of interest, or lack of exciting programs, but also by a narrow definition of what retention is. We posit that by widening the definition of teen retention, we can make it easier for teens to find meaningful ways to engage in Jewish life and we force ourselves to redefine the role that the congregation plays in that life.

    Teens have many ways to explore their Jewish identities beyond formal congregational learning programs. In some communities, Federations, Day Schools, NFTY, URJ camps, BBYO, and JCC’s also offer opportunities for teen connection. In small communities without these programs, teens are active citizens in a complex world. Should we consider it a success or a failure if one of our teens spends the entire summer at a URJ camp (aspiring to work with kids as a CIT) but doesn’t enroll in our formal education program? Should we consider it success or failure when one of our teens is so inspired by his Bar Mitzvah “tikkun olam” project that he continues doing it through high school and makes it a major pillar of his life, but does not enroll in one of our formal education programs? Should we consider it success or failure when a teen who has learned about Israel, either through one of our programs or one of NFTY’s is so inspired that she begins to read books and articles about Israel, prompting dinner conversation and advocacy at her high school?

    Of course this is success! But we still must challenge ourselves to ask where the congregation plays a role. Maybe the answer resides in seeing the congregation as playing a different role than we have played in the past. Instead of exclusively offering programs, maybe the role of the congregation is (1) to celebrate these teens and offer them opportunities to be role models to children in the congregation, (2) to help them integrate experiences from real life and the wide array of Jewish contacts that they have and place them all into a Jewish context, and (3) to provide a home for teens that doesn’t necessarily offer programs or make demands and list requirements but instead offers a haven from the stress of high school, a listening ear, and safe, nurturing relationships.

    This outlook means a different way of thinking about what we offer and how we measure success.

    Amy Asin
    Associate Director, The Experiment in Congregational Education

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