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12 April 2013

Community-Based Hebrew Schools: Moving Beyond the Paradox

By David Waksberg, CEO
San Francisco, CA

Synagogue schools are the Rodney Dangerfield of Jewish education – it’s the domain that gets no respect. Generations bond over the shared (or perceived) experience of having “suffered through Hebrew school.” The butt of jokes, it has attained near mythic status as an icon of boredom and banality (see, for example, the Hebrew school scene from the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man). One philanthropist described synagogue schools as the Jewish educational equivalent to “soup chicken – all the flavor has been squeezed out.”

Whether this reputation is deserved, it has taken its toll – on the morale of key stakeholders (most notably, the often under-resourced educators), and on enrollment. Over the last 20 years, religious school enrollment in the Bay Area has declined, even while the Jewish population has increased. Fewer than one in two Jewish children are enrolled in a supplemental Jewish education program here in Northern California.

This gloomy veneer obscures a reality more complex, contradictory, and, ultimately, hopeful. The numbers don’t lie – enrollment has declined, and this decline is a cause of concern. Decreasing enrollment reflects demographic shifts in synagogue membership as a whole – synagogues remain the dominant (though not the only) venue in which part-time Jewish education (i.e., not full-time Jewish day schools) is available to Jewish youth. Declines in religious school enrollment are part of a larger story.

The experiences of Jewish youth in part-time religious schools are often different than the memories of their parents. The quality of instruction is generally higher, the professional preparation of educators is deeper, and, as we show below, there are multiplying islands of excellence and innovation, fomenting a quiet revolution in the field. But first, let’s deal with enrollment.

Underneath the numbers lies an interesting paradox. A 2011 study of Jewish life in New York found a decrease in Jewish engagement while “more non-denominational Jews…look to engage.” A 2004 Jewish Community Federation-commissioned study of the San Francisco Jewish community observed that Jews who did not belong to a synagogue expressed increasing interest in participating in Jewish activities such as a Passover Seders, and lighting Shabbat and Hanukkah candles. In short, fewer people joining synagogues does not necessarily mean fewer people seeking Jewish life and learning. As Steve Cohen and Ari Kelman pointed out in their 2007 study, Uncoupled, “…younger Americans [are] keener to engage in personal exploration…All [this] points to increasing specialization, customization, and the expectation of ease of access to goods, services and resources.”

Cohen’s and Kelman’s observations resonate here in Northern California. In focus groups and interviews among unafilliated parents of preschoolers, most strongly agreed with such statements as:

I want my child to have Jewish friends.”
I want my child to learn about Jewish values.”
I want my child to learn about Jewish holidays, their meaning and how to celebrate them.”
I want my child to learn the stories of the Torah.”

These responses would indicate interest in enrolling a child in a synagogue school. Then, strong agreement among respondents with these two statements begins to paint a different picture:

I want our Jewish connection to take place in our home and at our friends’ homes.”
I want to be involved in my child’s Jewish activities.”

These data don’t indicate parents disinterested in Jewish life and learning for their children. To the contrary, the desire to be involved in their children’s activities reflects a growing trend of more hands-on involvement among young parents in their children’s education (and, a Do-It-Yourself culture less inclined to out-source something this important to a synagogue parking lot drop-off). But it does call to question their interest in institutions.

Ironically, after years of Jewish family educators striving to involve parents in their children’s Jewish learning, a large cohort of young parents emerges – interested in what the Jewish family educators have long offered, but not in the form it has been offered.

We took note of these trends when we noticed that four of five Jewish children in Marin County in grades K-3 are not participating in ANY formal Jewish learning program. At Jewish LearningWorks, we were working with synagogue schools in the region to help them achieve excellence in their programs. We convened both synagogues in the region and the JCC and we all asked ourselves this simple question – do we want to only strive to improve the learning experience for a diminishing minority of Jewish children? Or do we also feel obligated to explore ways of expanding the circle of learning to include families currently not participating?

Thus, a remarkable collaboration began –among the synagogues, the JCC and Jewish LearningWorks to develop a channel to Jewish life and learning that would reflect our deeply held Jewish and educational principles and compel participation among those very families “voting with their feet” away from synagogue schools.

What made it remarkable? In the first place, a close collaboration among Jewish institutions that could be competing for members is itself noteworthy. All the more so – institutions and professionals whose performances are measured in no small part by the number of members and students they enroll agreed to put those concerns aside and invest in an initiative that might not yield any new institutional members. They and we are committed to expanding the circle of Jewish learning.

Shalom Explorers, a collaboration of Congregation Kol Shofar, Congregation Rodef Sholom, the Osher Marin JCC, and Jewish LearningWorks has the audacious goal of doubling the number of young Jewish families engaging in Jewish life and learning in Marin County. Adhering to key educational values of the consortium, Shalom Explorers is not “Judaism Lite” – rather it brings a commitment to high quality Jewish education to unaffiliated Jewish families where they are.

A few key characteristics of Shalom Explorers:
  • It will cater to young children and their families, in grades K-2;
  • Highly experiential, small groups of children will meet in homes, not in a Jewish institution;
  • Institutional affiliation is not necessary;
  • Shalom Explorers groups will be led by parent volunteers, trained and supported by professional educators, and equipped with a curriculum custom-developed for the program;
  • Parents will be assisted by teen madrichim in working with the groups of young children. This will present a leadership development opportunity for qualified teens;
  • The curriculum will navigate group learning activities around central Jewish educational themes. In addition, children and their families will have the ability to select and pursue individualized learning programs;
  • The curriculum will incorporate home/family-oriented learning activities that involve the child and her parents;
  • Family social groups (or chavurot) will be formed among the families of the children within a learning group. These chavurot will gather around Jewish holidays for combined educational and social family activities. Shalom Explorers will provide educational support to these family groups, empowering them to “do Jewish” themselves;
  • Independent educational resource providers will partner with us to provide Jewish experiential programming involving hiking, gardening, cooking, music, dance, yoga, and drama;
  • Bridges to communal engagement will be offered – families will have opportunities to visit Jewish institutions and explore the communal value these institutions offer.
The pilot group of nine families convenes this month, scaling to three groups in September. Shalom Explorers receives support from The Covenant Foundation, along with support from the Jewish Community Federation, Jewish LearningWorks donors and support from all participating organizations.
Meanwhile, we’re launching another young family engagement experiment on the San Francisco Peninsula. Kesher (Connection) is a partnership of Jewish LearningWorks and all major Jewish institutions in the Palo Alto area. Kesher, like Shalom Explorers, involves Jewish family educational programming. However, Kesher has a deeper focus on social connections. A concierge will help young families to connect with other families, forge friendships, develop affinity groups, and connect with other Jewish organizations, synagogues, and schools, appropriate to the needs and interests of the families. Kesher also offers a family engagement fellowship for educators in the region. It is supported by a 3-year grant from the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Jewish LearningWorks donors.

Shalom Explorers and Kesher represent two innovative experiments in bringing Jewish life and learning to young families. Innovative and alternative Jewish learning programs are springing up within synagogue schools as well. Several congregations in the Bay Area are implementing innovative approaches, elevating the educational experiences of their students.

Congregation Beth Am, long a pioneer in congregational learning, continues to augment and expand its youth learning offerings to include family-based Shabbaton programs, and experiential learning programs involving day camp, service learning, and performing arts. Down the road, Congregation Kol Emeth has also implemented a diverse array of experiential and dynamic educational strategies, including a Hebrew immersion group, augmenting their traditional program.

Beth Am has partnered with Experiment in Congregational Education to achieve its educational innovation. Kol Emeth was among five “NESS schools” (Nurturing Excellence in Synagogue Schools), a three-year intensive and systemic program to elevate youth education in five congregational schools, led by Jewish LearningWorks and funded by the PELIE Foundation and the SF Jewish Community Federation. NESS was initiated in Philadelphia; San Francisco represented the 2nd community to implement this systemic and multi-dimensional approach to school improvement. All five NESS schools in the Bay Area are thriving and appear to, at least for now, sustain the gains they made during the NESS Initiative. These examples demonstrate a basic truth: innovation does not just happen – practitioners need support, investment, and scaffolding.

The boundary between synagogue schools and alternative programs is becoming more permeable. Edah is an independent Jewish learning program based in Berkeley, also supported by Covenant Foundation. Open five days a week, Edah partners with local congregations and offers robust learning opportunities for Jewish kids while providing after school child care. Among Edah’s partners is Urban Adamah, a Jewish educational farm in Berkeley. Urban Adamah offers “Hebrew School on the Farm” through which Urban Adamah’s congregational partners offer an outdoor farm-based Hebrew School program.

Many of these and other emerging programs incorporate the educational principles JESNA has been championing – learner-centric, empowering, relationship-based, diverse, inclusive, and meaning-centered learning. Some are within synagogues, some are not; increasingly, as with programs like Shalom Explorers and Edah, worlds are colliding as synagogues and alternative educational providers partner to forge powerful collaborations.

Our market research indicates that many young families seek a combination of attributes, including – high quality educational experience for their children, and low-friction engagement for them –low-friction does not mean low involvement, but low hassle – logistical complications, bureaucratic obstacles, and financial cost. Plotted on a graph, charting parental perception of educational value along one axis, and ease of participation (low friction) along the other, it might look like this:

For some, synagogue membership may be seen as additional friction. As the perception of value rises, the tolerance for friction rises. As the friction rises, however, anything less than excellence becomes less forgivable.

The “magic quadrant” is where parent perception of educational value is high and the hassle/cost factor is relatively low. These are by no means the only factors – but they are significant and educational programs do well to bear it in mind. Shalom Explorers and Edah are two examples of innovations that aim for that sweet spot.

We are learning that, with sufficient resources and support, entrepreneurial educators – both inside and outside synagogues, are developing innovative and high-quality Jewish learning programs that are meeting the needs of this generation of Jewish families. And Jewish families are responding – both inside and outside traditional synagogue venues.

We are witnessing a flowering of creative and dynamic innovations in part-time education. Not every experiment will survive, but among these new ventures lay the seeds of the future. We believe our community must nurture these venture and support sound yet bold risk-taking by educational innovators. The returns on that investment come when we see the sparks of Jewish spirit and knowledge alive among the next generation of Jewish learners.

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