Beth Cousens, PhD, is the Associate Vice President of Jewish Education & Engagement at Jewish Federations of North America.
What are the best ideas in the space of Jewish engagement?
It’s a good question, and one that policy makers in Jewish education and engagement—Federation leaders, philanthropists—ask (us and others) frequently, as they should.
What’s hard is that in Jewish communal life, we have little research establishing any ideas as “best.” We don’t know empirically (according to research) what actually “works,” and we don’t even agree on what we mean by works. Moreover, the best answer is driven by circumstances in each market: Each community has its own right “best.”
What if, given these circumstances, we’re still in the start-up phase of rebooting Jewish education (engagement!) for the 21st century?
In the early 20th century, The Benderly Boys helped to establish a framework and purpose for Jewish education that endured through the 20th century. When they began their work, thousands of Jews were moving from Eastern Europe to America. Their American children needed cultural inculcation. In this context, Samson Benderly and his group of disciples took the emerging educational structures of American life and of American Jewish life and established the following:
- Public school was of choice, but there was needed a separate series of educational opportunities to “supplement” public school;
- These supplementary opportunities should emphasize experiential and cultural activities (camp and youth programming as well as experiential activities in more school-like settings);
- Jewish education is meant to facilitate cultural survival and to cement communal responsibility, to unite, not educate for specific factional identities within Judaism;
- Jewish communal agencies should support Jewish education.
These assumptions themselves are not of focus here. What’s important is that the Benderly Boys were trying to figure out what to do with the times in which they lived. As immigrants arrived to America by the millions, every ethnic and religious community was exploring how their children would relate to America, through public or parochial school. John Dewey was fleshing out his philosophy of education, also responding to immigration and the subsequent growing need for American schools of high quality. The Benderly Boys existed within that conversation.
About 100 years later, we work in an entirely different conversation, equally influenced by the general cultural zeitgeist. Questions of schooling have largely been settled. Adulthood has been extended, with a related search for meaning and purpose established as a birthright of the privileged. Ethnic boundaries have faded. And, of course, the influence of the internet and related handheld technology is undisputable: Truth is personal and information immediate, access is taken for granted, and casual relationships are meaningful.
What if, then, these ideas suggested below aren’t the answer, but rather a starting point? What if rather than one group of men doing the inventing, we together have been reinventing Jewish education for the current moment, across the field? And what if we are in the experimental phase, the start-up phase, iterating these ideas as an educating community?
We put these ideas forward as the foundation of this start-up phase, central ideas with which we may experiment for, well, quite a while. They follow the principles of twenty-first century Jewish education and engagement that we've talked about: They are diverse, rooted in doing, relational, accessible, and life-based. There may be more (core ideas), and as years go by, we hope we find that we have developed our language further for talking about all of this. We will (we hope) learn from research we conduct, helping us to develop these ideas using empirical feedback.
One thing does remain the same from the work of the Benderly Boys. Like John Dewey, these Jewish educators who were Dewey-inspired saw “education” as a process of doing as well as of cognitive learning. "Learning" happened through action, through experience, it was a whole-person activity, not something limited only to information or facts. Similarly, these are ideas that have implications for settings that we consider to be “engagement” and “education,” for those new to Jewish life (“engagement” audiences) and those at its core (“education” audiences). This is largely because the engagement activities we have designed are, already, activities of experiential education—and it is also because these audiences are often blended, and we need to design sustained learning opportunities (“educational”) for every audience. Learning is broader than facts; engagement is broader than welcoming.
And so, we offer these for continued implementation, experimentation, and learning. (Note – We list concrete examples of programs below. For sure, we missed some. Tell us what we missed!)
1. Peer Connectors.
Peer Connectors (or ambassadors) are people hired to connect with their peers who are un-or under-engaged in Jewish life.
Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger were some of the first to write about “situated learning,” the idea that learning that is the most useful in real life happens in real time and with peers. When we’re new parents, when we move to a new city, when we are in any new situations, we look for people who’ve been there before us, and we learn the most from the questions we ask of these peers.
When learning is situated in community, it is immediately applicable. People can see how it works. Feelings about new situations—fear, or excitement, or confusion—are validated.
Peers matter because they’ve been there. The ideal peer connector is someone who is just a little bit ahead—maybe their kids are a little bit older, maybe they’re a little bit older. They’re still a peer, but they have answers and ideas through their life experiences.
As we write this, within the Jewish Federation system, Los Angeles and Chicago have well-established peer connector initiatives (NuRoots and JBaby, respectively), and San Francisco and Boston are launching initiatives. In Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Washington DC, the JCC facilitates connector initiatives for twenty/ thirty-somethings and families with young children, supported and incubated by Federation. Buffalo relies on connectors to facilitate its relational work in its Young Leadership department, and South Jersey has experimented with peer connectors of all ages. And, of course, Hillel uses peer connectors (fellows), and Moishe House and One Table are built on assumptions of peer engagement.
The structure of these connector initiatives shifts depending on the initiatives’ goals. They are paid or unpaid, full-time or part-time. They have in common that they are relational, that meaning—Jewish learning and growth—is co-constructed through an intentional, intimate relationship between connector and particpant. This final point is perhaps the most important: Peer connectors practice intentional relational engagement. To facilitate Jewish learning, they aren’t just friends.
2. Senior Jewish Educators.
If engagement is to facilitate Jewish growth—and if education is to do the same—sophisticated, authentic content needs to be present in the process. By definition, peers cannot offer the most sophisticated and complex Jewish material. But the principles of peer engagement—real-time, relational learning—are still the best paradigm for learning and growth in a society driven by networks.
Senior Jewish educators—rabbis or other highly knowledgeable and nimble educators—have capacity both for relationships and for facility with Jewish content. They are rabbis and educators without portfolio, who exist to strengthen the work of peer connectors (in a hand-off from those connectors) and to work genuinely with those who have no Jewish home. Rabbis are trained (to be overly simple) to give sermons and make hospital visits. But they also know our tradition of Jewish ideas, their pastoral skills can be drawn on to facilitate conversations about “big questions” (in Sharon Parks' language), and they have relevant and meaningful visions of Jewish living. They are highly valuable assets in engagement work.
In Washington DC, the Den Collective—incubated and supported by the Jewish Federation—now employs two of these engagement rabbis. Hillel pioneered the concept, with the Jim Joseph Foundation—campus rabbis who had no assignment other than meeting with unengaged students. The rabbis of BASE exemplify this role. And, as Honeymoon Israel, One Table, and other initiatives draw on Jewish educators to work with their networks of alumni, the position and work will be further defined.
3. Small Groups.
Jewish “learning” has been dominated by the classroom. Funnily enough, when we count camp, and youth group, and Hillel, and Israel experiences, there may be more students outside of the classroom than inside. But it doesn’t seem to matter. In North America, education equals classroom, and maybe even lectures.
The search for personal meaning and relevance in Jewish education today drives a need for conversation, for thinking out loud and trying on ideas. Rather than inherit their teachers’ suggestions, students need to develop their own wonderful ideas. And this means the group involved just can’t be that big, or participants won’t get to do their thinking out loud. Small group conversation lets participants learn from each other, using the assets of peer exploration (just like in peer connector initiatives).
Countless initiatives, inside and outside of the Federation system, bring small groups to life. In Toronto, parent/ baby playgroups are enhanced through its “PJ Plus” curriculum—playgroups become intentional opportunities to learn. Hillel’s Jewish Learning Fellowship has enrolled hundreds of students in text-based conversations about the issues they face as students. Moving Traditions engages pre-teen boys and girls in small group learning as they grow up. And the senior Jewish educators relies on small groups as one of their primary modalities.
4. Immersive Experiences.
Immersive experiences have long been seen as a highly effective mode of Jewish education and exploration. Recently, different organizations have demonstrated that immersive experiences aren’t limited to Israel or to summers. Overnight is often better than an afternoon or evening: It hits all of the above (real-time learning, peer learning, interaction with senior Jewish educators, small groups). It’s sustained. It’s joy and discovery.
Family camps—such as those incubated and supported by the Los Angeles Federation—give families the opportunity to get away in a Jewish context, with Jewish learning. Trybal Gatherings and Camp Nai Nai Nai do the same for adults in their twenties and thirties. IsraelNow (Jewish United Fund, Chicago) expands the eighth grade Israel experience to non-Jewish day school students. These are initiatives that can be scaled to other markets, and new immersive experiences can be invented for other populations and settings.
5. Public Space.
Engagement assumes that we are reaching people outside of Jewish spaces—and that means we need to go outside of Jewish spaces, to people, rather than expecting them always to do Jewish as we might. In the best case, possible participants stumble into a Jewish story hour in a bookstore, a Shabbat activity in a park, a Tu B’Shevat seder in a bar. Jewish activity becomes normalized and those who are reluctant to walk into Jewish spaces can still access Jewish exploration.
Seattle facilitates “Song and Storytime” in bookstores and other public spaces. Jewish Federations celebrate Hanukah in malls and holidays in grocery stores across North America. JCCs hold pop-up holiday celebrations at farmer’s markets. If the small group methodology met public space, what would happen beyond storytimes—and can we normalize Jewish storytime just as library storytimes happen in countless communities?
6. Design Laboratories (R&D).
This is an emerging list. We are still building the best ideas. Moreover, in the grassroots twenty-first century, we will always do well to help participants own and direct their Jewish lives. Organizations—Honeymoon Israel, for example—have started to facilitate design labs, where participants work with agency leaders to build follow-up opportunities from their first Jewish experiences, agency leaders getting real-time feedback as they co-design new initiatives. OneTable is built on the very premise that participants are in charge.
Millennials and Generation Z expect flat power structures and have real power to organize and lead. As they age, we have increasing opportunity to help them become leaders of their own Jewish activities, to work alongside them, to learn from them, and to create twenty-first century Jewish education together.