Jewish Education: Revolution AND Evolution



by Ira J. Wise

I am so pleased that this symposium began with Dr. Charles Edelsberg’s words, as I have known of and benefited from his vision as realized through his work with the Jim Joseph Foundation. He writes,

“[We] 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.”

Reading this, I felt a visceral response. After all, I have dedicated my life to being a synagogue educator. Then I took a breath and remembered that for the past several years I have been saying more or less the same thing. We do need to question how learning is best transmitted. In fact, we need to question the language we use in the entire endeavor.

At the same time, I also question those who have already decided the answer is to jettison the schools – and the synagogues for that matter – and find the new new thing, to borrow a phrase from Michael Lewis. We do need to find the new new thing, but I don’t think that means jettisoning the models we have.

We need to transform our schools. And for a visionary idea, I look to the past, to John Dewey. As recently as 1897, he said:

I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself… I believe that the school is primarily a social institution… I believe that the school must represent present life-life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.

So when Dr. Edelsberg invokes the idea that “profound revolutions in information and communications technologies are accelerating deep learning outside of formal institutional settings – occurring in real time, all the time,” he is restating Dewey. It is the same as it ever was, and we need to be constantly adapting how learning happens in our congregations.

To me, the focus is on creating community and relationship. While the self-direct approach will serve some better than anything we have done before, I believe it must – particularly for younger learners – be a component of the learning experience, not the totality.

For the last few years at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT, we have been trying to focus on relationship building. While our school is still a school, it is not monolithic and unchanging. This past spring, a parent emailed to explain that the timing of school as her daughter moved to a new grade was not going to work – and because we couldn’t help her, they were going to “do it on their own.” Another parent expressed concern with the content and the methodology of the program – and because we couldn’t help her, they were going to “do it on their own.” We invited both to bring their concerns to and join our Religious School Vision Team. On September 9, we opened our fully subscribed Etgar class, a pilot program that meets the challenge of logistics, integrates Hebrew and Judaic learning and brings experiential learning to the forefront – all in response to the needs we helped our families articulate.

It comes down to relationships. Between adults. Between children. Between congregational leadership, professionals, and our congregants. My wife, a healthcare marketing professional, told me once that all problems are ultimately communications problems. Sometimes we don’t ask the right questions; sometimes we don’t correctly hear the answers or questions directed to us. Instead of meeting the needs we think people have, we need to focus on the needs they really have.

One of the ways we do that in our temple is through organizing the parents to help them build their own relationships in the context of the congregation. In Torah at the Center (page 6), our Room Parent Coordinator Amy Newman described how our room parents don’t do what traditional room parents do. Their role is to get the parents of the students to socialize and build relationships. Parents of older students create programs that get our students to do the same.

My teacher Jerry Kaye, director of URJ Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, teaches his staff that “camp is for the campers.” That means that all activity (not just teaching) must be designed with, as Dr. Edelsberg says, “personal relevance to the learner foremost in mind.” I use the same teaching with my faculty: Everything we do is in service of the learner’s experience and that of her family – not the experience we think they should have, but the one they have come to expect, because we developed it together.

Dr. Edelsberg gives us a lot to chew on. And we have to both embrace where have been and let go enough to bring in other possibilities. Soon, we will be asking students to turn their phones on at the start of class, so they can bring the world in with them – and so they can go out into the world and bring their classmates with them, as well.

Ira J. Wise, RJE, is the director of education at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT. He blogs about Jewish Education at Welcome to the Next Level and first met Dr. Charles Edelsberg as a Jim Joseph Foundation Fellow at the Lookstein Institute for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar Ilan University. He is a graduate of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC-JIR.

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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