What’s Next for Part-Time Jewish Education?

How can part-time Jewish education—synagogue schools—succeed given the needed transformation in the 21st century? Its leaders need be vision-driven, generous, creative, brave, and careful and generative managers of change. Today, Rabbi Jennifer Goldsmith (Managing Director, Leadership Initiatives, at the Jewish Education Project) shares the fundamentals of what leadership in this space can look like. 


Rabbi Jennifer Ossakow Goldsmith is the Managing Director of Congregational Learning and Leadership Initiatives at The Jewish Education Project in New York. Born in Cleveland, Ohio and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Jennifer received her BA from the University of Michigan and rabbinic ordination and MA in Religious Education from HUC-JIR. Prior to her time at The Jewish Education Project, Jennifer worked as the Director of Life-Long Learning at Larchmont Temple helping engage families at every age and stage of their Jewish journeys. Her current work concentrates on fostering and spreading educational innovation through consulting, grant initiatives, online resources, professional networks, and leadership development. 


Bureaus of Jewish Education developed to support Jewish teachers and later, synagogue schools and their leaders more broadly. More than 100 years after their founding, when many or even most Bureau professionals work from inside of Federations and when "school" no longer necessarily captures what we're trying to do with part-time Jewish education, Federation professionals remain in the thick of it. Educators, clergy, and even lay-leaders call with rapid-fire questions: about how to create a professional workshop on classroom management, how to reconstruct a program for teens, or what to include in a job description for a new hire.


Often, these questions are highly concrete or technical. Leadership experts Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky explain technical problems this way: “Technical problems, while often challenging, can be solved by applying existing know-how and the organization’s current problem-solving processes” (“A Survival Guide for Leaders”). To answer technical questions, we use our existing knowledge and expertise. As a result, in responding to these questions this way, we maintain the status quo. And when we respond only to what’s in front of us, we make only small adaptations within the existing system. 


For the last two years, Jewish education professionals from over a dozen Federations in North America have met monthly as part of a “learning circle” on the synagogue school and on part-time Jewish education (lessons learned/ discussions summarized here). In year one, we learned from experts in the field including some of those leading the most innovative models today. We drew inspiration from their examples of engaging, impactful, part-time Jewish education. We studied the history of learning models in part-time Jewish education, strengthened our knowledge of what was happening across North America, and uncovered successes we hoped to bring back to our own communities. In year two, we looked inward as members of the Learning Circle shared dilemmas with the group, reviewing topics such as facilitating effective professional development, setting vision for educational work, creating collaboration across community, and determining what constituents really want (and need!). We used a case protocol to reflect on our challenges and all learned from the brainstorming about any one individual community’s work.


In June 2018, we asked ourselves, What’s next for us? How do we build on what we’ve been doing? We realized that we often turn to technical solutions in our daily work—and that the innovations that we were studying ask us to consider not just what we know, but also who we are as leaders in our organizations and how we interact with our constituents to shape situations and move everyone toward a better future. We suggested that we work next to strengthen our own ability to exert leadership and be change-makers.


I am lucky enough to lead exactly this type of work at The Jewish Education Project in New York. Each day, I work with educational leaders to help them develop their own skills and uncover answers to the tough questions they get to ask: How do I create a culture where each learner is thriving? How do I transform myself to enable the change I want to make? How can I develop my teaching staff into engaging educational leaders who are confident and capable? These tough questions aren’t technical problems—they are adaptive challenges that need something beyond a one-time phone call, an email response, or a link to a resource. Adaptive challenges recognize that we—as part of the system in which the challenge exists—are part of the challenge, that change demands that we examine our own behavior and commitments as well as those of all stakeholders. In order to grow, we all need to learn together and ideate a new way forward. Heifetz and Linsky suggest, “To make real progress, sooner or later those who lead must ask themselves and the people in the organization to face a set of deeper issues—and to accept a solution that may require turning part or all of the organization upside down.” While I believe in the synagogue as a place where Jewish education and Jewish learners can thrive, I also believe that the synagogue school designed in the 20th century needs to function differently going forward.


Where do we begin?


If leadership is our goal, how can we develop ourselves so we can work with others to think through the truly tough challenges? What kinds of theories and tools can we arm ourselves with so we can succeed?


At The Jewish Education Project, we’ve been turning to the following (see below) - and it’s these frames that we also expect to bring to Federation education professionals in the coming months.


  • Positive Psychology: From The Positive Psychology Institute, we learn a framework for the purpose of Jewish education today in addition to what we learn from Jewish tradition itself: “Positive psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing and an applied approach to optimal functioning … the study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals, communities and organizations to thrive.” Thriving—in the face of an ever faster-paced world, with great complexity and where parenting has become competitive sport—gives parents and children the opportunity to live better, engage with who they are and can be, and create warm and affirming memories. It compels them to Jewish experiences and helps them understand how to make sense of these experiences vis a vis their daily lives.

    Martin Seligman's work on positive psychology emphasizes positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. It is a context for Jewish wisdom, memory, time, and ways of being; these integrated together give us an agenda for Jewish education in the 21st century.
    Thriving also pushes at questions that, when explored, will enrich our work and families’ experiences further: How do we strengthen our own sense of well-being as educators—and how do we help learners do the same? How do Jewish wisdom and ideas inform the goals and concerns of most families today? How would the settings, tools, activities, and content of Jewish education shift if thriving became the goal and context of our work? Thriving offers an agenda for the renewal of Jewish education in the 21st century.

Resources on thriving are available here.


  • Adaptive Leadership: Thriving may inform the content of Jewish education, but how we achieve change in Jewish education, moving from what was to what will be, requires a different framework and set of capacities. As described earlier, Cambridge Leadership Associates suggests a framework for implementing that change: “Adaptive Leadership is a practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments. It is being able, both individually and collectively, to take on the gradual but meaningful process of change. It is about diagnosing the essential from the expendable and bringing about a real challenge to the status quo.” It is about getting on the “balcony” to understand what is playing out around you and then moving forward to make tough decisions that lead to the change you want to see.

    Understanding how to be an adaptive leader is necessary to make the changes that need to be made. The good news is that anyone in our systems can be an adaptive leader. The hard news is that in order to be one you often have to tell people what they need to hear, challenge them, and facilitate the acceptance of loss. 
  • Immunity to Change: If adaptive leadership suggests how leaders interact with others, “immunity to change” outlines how leaders can work on their own senses of themselves to better understand what is getting in the way of their making the changes they want to make. It is a theory that says people have a "hidden commitment," with an underlying root cause, that competes and conflicts with a stated commitment to change. It is these hidden commitments that cause people not to change and to fail to realize their best intentions.

    In order to be the leaders we need to be, so we can make the changes we want to make for the future of part-time Jewish education, we need to understand what is getting in our own way. Knowing our own immunities to change and working to get past them will enable us to begin exerting leadership in transformative ways.


As we translate Jewish education, particularly in the synagogue setting, to a new era, the challenges that matter most in part-time Jewish education are the adaptive ones. Addressing these adaptive challenges means seeking new approaches to thriving, daring leadership, and helping all our Jewish communities shed those things that hold them back in order to move into a bold and exciting future.