The Key to Meaningful Jewish Education: Relationship-Building

by Micah Ellenson

“In a global world, there is unprecedented opportunity for relationship building, inter-connectedness, learning and meaning-making between and among Reform Jews across the globe,” Dr. Charles Edelsberg writes.

Relationship-building between congregants and the institutions to which they belong is at the core of creating a meaningful Judaism in the 21st century. However, many barriers prevent connection between congregants and institutions. It is crucial to identify the obstacles that exist today in creating relationships of intimacy and meaning between congregant and congregation. Although there are many – and each congregation has a unique set – I will identify a few that I feel are the most universal and important.

One of the first barriers to successful relationship building occurs because we are always worried about the future of the Jewish people. As a result, we oftentimes negate the present. As Jewish professionals and lay people we have become so focused on b’nai mitzvah, post-b’nai mitzvah, retention, and the future of Judaism that we sometimes unintentionally ignore the children and families that show up every week to the local synagogue and are highly committed to providing a Jewish education to their children. Jews are, in fact, showing up to synagogues – and they will continue to show up whether or not they have Smart Boards in their children’s religious school classrooms. The thing we should really be concerned with is creating deep and meaningful relationships between families and the synagogue while they are there.

The second difficulty is the ever-changing dynamic between clergy, synagogue, and the congregant. There was a time, not so long ago, when the rabbi could rely on the aura of his dynamic presence to get those who did not know him to follow him. Today, with community organizing models and access to so much information, the only way clergy and educators will reach the people who walk through the doors of the synagogue is by knowing them personally and cultivating engaging relationships with them. This type of relationship-building requires more work, and there is more risk of rejection. However, without the rabbi, cantor, and educator being real and accessible and speaking from the heart, they will be unable to reach the hearts of the people they wish to shepherd and have join them.

The third hurdle is that American Jews have changed in their self-perception and self-definition. Judaism has always been a religion of questions and very few answers. The Talmud is full of thousands of debates and very few resolutions to those great discussions. With so much access to information, we have become a culture that values answers over the process of asking questions. Rabbis, cantors, educators and congregants are all guilty of becoming infatuated with the product of Jewish living as opposed to the process – as if the point of Jewish education were to be able to read Hebrew, chant Torah, and be able to “pray anywhere in the world.” The point of Jewish education needs to be about process-seeking, and not about finding. When one is taught to be a Jew, by questioning and seeking, then Jewish values – like community, ritual, mitzvot, lifecycles, and God – will flow naturally and authentically from their very being. It is not the products of education that are important, rather it is the process of being educated that is truly what Jewish education needs to be about. Therefore, it is a model of process over product in Jewish education within the synagogue that will truly be what makes Judaism generative and personally relevant to the congregant.

Relationship has always been at the core of Judaism. Relationship leads to community, and community is, at its core, what Judaism strives to achieve. In Exodus 19:6, God tells the people of Israel right before they receive the Ten Commandments, “And you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” However, we can only become this holy nation by being a connected community. The real implication of post-denominationalism and the technology boom is that people will imagine they have community and all that Judaism has to offer because they know the facts of Judaism – but it is a shift from product to process, from dynamic leadership to community organizing, from paying attention to our present and not just our future, that will ensure a vibrant and meaningful Jewish future and it all starts with relationship.

Micah Ellenson received his Masters in Education from the University of Judaism in 2005 and served as Director of Youth Activities and Dean of the Academy of Stephen S. Wise for four years.  He is currently in the rabbinic program at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Sara, and daughter, Lily.

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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5 Responses to “The Key to Meaningful Jewish Education: Relationship-Building”

  1. avatar

    Brilliant. An angle I never thought of. Thank you.

  2. avatar

    As a former b’nei mitzvah tutor, I would respectfully submit that the relative over-emphasis put on bar and bat mitzvahs comes from parents rather than clergy. So many times, families join a synagogue–and start religious school at the last allowable moment–so they can check the bar or bat mitzvah off the list and be done with synagogue. It’s a kind of “retail Judaism”… I pay this, you give me that. Each of us Jews have to be responsible for building community, doing mitzvot, and making meaning through ritual and synagogue life. Clergy can’t do it for us.

  3. avatar


    This is a wonderful articulation of the need for and the obstacles to relationship building. We’d like to suggest another obstacle – definition and measurement.

    In the congregational world we tend to use five reliable measures of success – how many people showed up, were we on budget, were participants on task, did we have enough food, how many people complained.

    These measures will fail us if we are trying to build relationships.

    One of the congregations we are working with at The Experiment in Congregational Education is taking the time to work with learners, teachers, and clergy to define what a relationship is. This process is happening at multiple levels – clergy to learner, learner to learner, teacher to learner. Then they are going to measure how good they are at creating relationships now and a year from now.

    In one sense, it feels like a violation of a sacred trust to measure a relationship. But until we put a sharper definition on what we are talking about, we will not be able to transform the way we behave.

    Amy Asin
    Associate Director, The Experiment in Congregational Education

  4. avatar

    Thanks to all – A few thoughts for the symposium conversation related to the idea of relationships as a central focus now, going forward:

    Relationships that foster strong connections to a Jewish way of life grounded in its ideas, rituals,values and texts will benefit by being grounded in a series of authentic encounters with Jewish ideas, rituals, values and texts. Formal, informal and experiential learning are all still relevant contexts in which these relationships can meaningfully be formed.

    Reform Jewish education, both present and future, will still be expected to help Jews of every age to meaningfully construct Jewish knowledge and form a strong Jewish identity. There will be variations in what that knowledge includes, who teaches it, where it is taught, and what that identity looks and feels like, but this core idea remains a constant.

    Schools – Jewish day schools and our congregational schools – offer powerful contexts for this Jewish relationship building endeavor. Schools are always changing and adapting to new tools and models of teaching, new trends and new ideas, but they are still our allies in this work of meaningful relationship building with one another that we all know is ever more important.

    In the 20th century Joseph Schwab and Seymour Fox taught educators “four commonplaces” – teacher, learner, content and milieu – being key dynamic forces driving the curriculum. Perhaps now, in the 21st century it will help us to add “learning-in-relationship” to the list.

    If you want to talk more about this, let’s do!

  5. avatar


    Your thoughts are right on. I hope that this article reaches many people.
    Kol Hakavod!

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