What Do We Want for Our Children?

By the Jewish Education & Engagement staff, with input from The Jewish Education Project 


Life doesn’t take place in classrooms. Education doesn’t even take place in classrooms. The best schools today use technology to bring their students to real-world experiences. Students learn through projects, by living rather than studying, through working together and from the experiments in which they are engaging.


Yet, the Jewish communal zeitgeist often seems to continue to expect religious school—classroom-based education in which children absorb facts. There seems a bias toward Jewish literacy, a desire simply for the kids to know Passover’s four questions, or big Jewish dates, or prayers and blessings. 


This paradigm could not be farther from the genuine opportunities we have to enrich children’s lives and families’ lives through their K-12 Jewish experiences. Their Jewish education and involvement should help them grow as human beings, think in Jewish ways, feel deeply Jewish, and build their sense of selves, Jewishly.


The “religious school” system has begun to change. It is Federations’ responsibility to support and expand that change. 


Here, we outline 10 efforts-- there are many more that we could have included and we probably will highlight over the next few months-- that are changing the nature of part-time Jewish education from across the county. They are different kinds of efforts—they:


  • Strengthen the existing system, the synagogue
  • Demonstrate what Federations can do to support kids’ and families’ learning
  • Change the existing system by offering other part-time opportunities


As you read about these approaches and initiatives, we think you’ll see the beginnings of transformation and even, possibly, a movement that Federations can elevate and help catalyze. 



The Union for Reform Judaism's Jewish Learning Revolution (JLR)


The Reform movement targets wholesale change, focused on b’nai mitzvah (The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution – BMR) and focused more broadly (Reimagining Congregational Learning). 

The BMR, founded in 2012, has worked with over 130 congregations, helping them deepen the educational experiences leading up to bar/bat mitzvah through including: multiple opportunities for family engagement; one or two-year long mentoring relationships with teens, congregants, and/or clergy; ongoing social justice work instead of a discrete “mitzvah project;” and the creation of new rituals, described in more detail in their new gallery of innovations.  


Isa Aron, an architect of BMR, has documented new models of congregational education programs. Reimagining Congregational Learning, launching in the fall of 2016, will work with congregations to reimagine their religious school, adapting one of these models: weekly “family schools;” creating a camp-like environment; building tracks in which students learn through art, drama, sports, or nature; adopting and adapting Hebrew Through Movement; and others. 

The JLR works primarily with Reform congregations, but when supported by Federations or foundations they can work with synagogues of all movements. 



Shinui (North America)

Federation and central education agency professionals work together to understand and advance innovation in congregational education. 

Shinui, the Network for Innovation in Part-Time Education, is made up of eight agencies from across North America (New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Houston, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto and Chicago) that have all been working toward educational innovation. With the support of the Covenant Foundation, the agencies work together to spark, nurture, and spread educational innovation within and beyond our catchment areas. Representatives from each agency, including someone who works closely with congregations and the executive director, come together monthly to learn and plan. Throughout the year representatives regularly share research, new ideas, models of learning, tales of success, and challenges with each other 


I*Express (New York)


Organizational change, leadership growth, and reimagining of the learning models results from intensive coaching and consulting to congregations from the NY central agency for Jewish education.


With support from UJA-Federation of New York, The Jewish Education Project has been deeply engaged in innovation in congregational education for almost a decade, implementing LOMED, Express Innovation, and several other related initiatives. Their lessons learned are well-documented and their accomplishments significant: By taking a community-based approach to this work, The Jewish Education Project created a language through which area educators could talk about and strengthen their work, catalyzed the development of an array of innovative models of congregational learning programs, established a culture of professional learning and growth in area congregations, and promoted and supported systems and cultural change in congregations. I*Express continues to support change and adaption of innovative models of education (Family Learning, Intergenerational, Camp/Retreat, Shabbat-Centered, Service Learning, Distance Learning, and Choice-Based Learning) through consulting, online resources, peer groups and grants. 


Area educator Nancy Parkes gives testimony to the role that vision-driven leadership can play in congregational education and attributes her change-oriented work, in part, to The Jewish Education Project’s influence.


Jewish Learning Connections (Boston)

Jewish Learning Connections develops and implements a variety of strategies to help part-time schools transform the Jewish learning they offer children and their families.


Partnering with the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE) of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Jewish Learning Connections (JLC, an initiative of Combined Jewish Philanthropies) takes a unique approach to help congregations transform their learning programs, focusing their efforts around ongoing and time-intensive consultation. A small financial incentive for the congregation is often also included. Consultants work closely with congregations as they articulate learning design principles that then support experimentation with pedagogical innovations. Four principles have emerged as core to meaningful and successful educational innovations: learning that is active, life-centered, relationship and story-based, and rich in content.  JLC does not dictate the types of innovation or pedagogic models congregations develop or adopt, recognizing that each congregation is different and has its own culture. JLC consultants customize their approach based on each congregation’s needs, interests, and readiness. Some of the pilot sites began small, innovating with a grade or two, and then spread the innovation to include all of the elementary grades or the entire school. Other congregations created an entirely new vision of learning over a multi-year process and then re-opened with a completely re-imagined learning program.


Curricular Projects (The Jewish Education Center of Cleveland


Cleveland’s JECC (central agency for Jewish education) designs cutting-edge curricula that can facilitate significant learning in school and other settings.


The JECC’s Curriculum Department is nationally respected for its focus on improving Jewish learning through the development of curricular materials. In recent years, the JECC’s Curriculum Department has concentrated on the learning needs of pre-Bar/Bat Mitzvah students in part-time settings, consistently addressing the question, “what would be compelling learning for these students?” Common elements of the JECC’s work includes attention to big ideas (“Enduring Understandings”), Jewish texts as anchor, constructivist learning, teacher as facilitator, use of technology (including student-developed materials), and experiential learning. A recently example is “The Box,” a fifth-grade curriculum focusing on Pirke Avot 1:12 developed in partnership with a Reform congregation in Cleveland: Students collaborate to solve a series of challenges that emerge from a box “found” in a mystery person’s basement. 

In addition, the JECC’s Curriculum Department continues to help educational programs re-conceptualize the teaching of Hebrew and prayers. Hebrew Through Movement, Let's Learn Hebrew Side-by-Side (online learning that supports delaying the teaching of decoding till fifth or sixth grade) and the new website jPrayer have all shifted assumptions about the decades old model of Hebrew and prayer learning in part-time settings.   


The Associated (Baltimore)


Scaling up local innovation: diversifying, complementing, and supporting educational experiences in and beyond the classroom.


The Associated engaged in a year-long process to explore innovative ways to reinvigorate Jewish education in, and beyond the classroom.  The resulting recommendations will help expand the Macks Center for Jewish Education’s Community Connectors program. This initiative uses peer engagement to connect families with young children to Jewish living and learning opportunities. There are currently 7 Connectors focused on families with infants and toddlers. The expansion will allow for 5 additional Connectors with a focus on families with school-aged children in addition to enhanced training and resources for all the Connectors. The Connectors will help create informal Jewish learning initiatives for families. Additional support will be provided to grow Hebrew School on the Farm at the Pearlstone Center, a program offering experiential Jewish education for congregational school students, engaging them through an outdoor, environmental curriculum grounded in Jewish wisdom and traditions. There are currently 5 partner congregational schools and the expansion will allow for additional schools, age cohorts as well as youth who are not enrolled in a congregational school to participate.  




Jewish Journey Project (New York)

JJP designed a revolutionary educational imitative for children in grades 3-7, a Jewish educational experience that is unique to each participant, their interests, and their time.


Every JJP participant plans and builds a personalized journey, choosing courses and workshops that match his or her passions and curiosities as well as preferred mode of learning. The JJP model is based on flexibility and creativity, collaboration and community. JJP broadens Jewish learning and deepens Jewish living by providing experiences that involve the individual, the family, the synagogue, the JCC Manhattan, and the larger New York Jewish community. Participants will meet, study, and grow with a wide range of fellow learners. Courses range from creating Torah animation to exploring Hebrew in high tech, from learning about social justice (and taking action!) to studying Jewish history and identity at The Jewish Museum.  Jewish content is pushed into all of their classes that are based on a wide range of modalities such as drama, music, theater, arts and crafts, discussion and more. At JJP each student learns and practices Hebrew through our Hebrew HomePage webinar weekly for 30 minutes with a tutor which can be done from the comfort of their own homes.  In addition, every JJP family works closely with a JJP Advisor who helps them craft the ideal combination of courses each semester for their child/ren. JJP values the vision and culture inherent to every synagogue community. In order to strengthen ties between participants and their congregations, all JJP participants attend a regularly scheduled MeetUp at their home synagogue.


The Nitzan Network (North America)


Alternatives to religious school collaborate to give support to each other and to the burgeoning “after-school Hebrew school” movement.

Nitzan is a network of Jewish learning afterschool programs throughout North America. Nitzan programs are independent, offer children Jewish education and experiences in an afterschool setting as opposed to a traditional religious school. They draw from camp models, employing a variety of experiential education strategies like opening and closing circles, songs, games, outdoor play, and other activities, (As children get older, activities sometimes become more intensive or content-laden.). All Nitzan sites focus on Hebrew language as essential to Jewish education and some offer additional family activities or camps during school breaks and weekends. 

More can be learned from the programs themselves: Kesher, Edah, Jewish Kids Groups, Moed, Bayit, Jewish Enrichment Center, Downtown Jewish Playschool, Sulam.


Camp Tawonga B'nai Mitzvah Program (Bay Area)


An overnight camp near Yosemite takes its strengths to campers and families locally in the Bay Area to give them a meaningful Jewish experience focusing on the bar/bat mitzvah rite of passage.


This overnight camp facilitates a two-year experiential learning program culminating in b’nai mitzvah ceremonies for students. The program incorporates weekend retreats, family programming and meetings, prayer and Torah reading coaching, mentorship, classes, musical experiences, and other outdoor, educational and experiential opportunities. In a community with low synagogue affiliation, this program facilitated by an institution with high enrollment from non-affiliated families offers a ritual and learning opportunity otherwise unavailable to families—or, synagogue-affiliated families can choose to participate in this program on top of their synagogue program, because they love the outdoors.


Wilderness Torah (Bay Area)


A wilderness program helps children and pre-teenagers become more grounded human beings, in the outdoors and through Jewish tradition.


Wilderness Torah facilitates a program for K-5 (B'hootz) and for 6-7 (B'naiture). Both programs meet regularly with students throughout the year, in the woods, drawing from earth-based teachings to build students as human beings and as Jews. B’naiture is a “coming of age journey,” supporting students within a supportive peer environment, as they explore who they are prior to their b’nai mitzvah. Mentorship plays a significant role in both programs.

Wilderness Torah is facilitating the Wilderness Torah Training Institute “to train leaders, educators, and all who are interested in deepening their connection to Judaism, nature and the intersection between them.” Communities and organizations interested in the program should participate in order to bring programs like Wilderness Torah to their settings.


(To this list, we would add Hebrew in the public schools, a Chicago initiative and Hebrew charter schools—but they are for another blog post.)


These approaches to transformation and these educational initiatives, initiatives inside and outside of the synagogue, demonstrate that change, creativity, and excellence are possible. To engage in change, we need humility to acknowledge that what we’re doing isn’t working, genuine openness to working with others on new strategies, and—perhaps most significantly—a vision of continuous engagement for Jewish families and what it means to grow as people through Jewish educational programs. 


It’s also worth asking about what we know about Jewish education at its best. We know that committed Jewish adults have multiple Jewish experiences as children, not just one. We know that they have those experiences year after year, not just for a few years; they have experiences as children and as teens. We know that their Jewish life is long, immersive, and layered and in the best cases, it is grounded in true Jewish community.


This is the biggest picture. Within this context, we have a lot of work to do, but we also have tremendous opportunity as we work toward happy, healthy families and kids, who live their lives in dialogue with the Jewish narrative and the Jewish people. Whether or not their children know the four questions is both incidental and completely congruous with this larger task.


For reflection and discussion:


  • Religious school has been about children. Should it be? 
  • More broadly, what are our goals for the Jewish experiences and Jewish growth of children and families?
  • What is the array of parallel experiences children and families can have—a congregational experience and summer camp and wilderness overnights, all at the same time, and what else? 
  • How can we incentivize longevity, not just after bar and bat mitzvah but from year to year, true continuous engagement?
  • Who are a Federation’s partners as Federation catalyzes change in this area?