Seamless Learning: New Thinking about Congregational Education

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February 1, 2011
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Success. How do we know it when we see it? Today, most children receiving a Jewish education are schooled in part-time congregational settings. Few are happy with the status quo, and so we are approaching a time of great opportunity — the door wide open for reinvention, experimentation, and imagination. In this Roundtable, we hear from leaders who have taken steps to create innovative, part-time congregational education — learning models for the thousands of children and families who choose to engage in part-time Jewish learning.

Cyd Weissman: We are at a time of great opportunity. Children and families wake in the morning, walk along the way, and go to bed at night in ways that are significantly different from those of just five or ten years ago. On the other hand, some things are very much the same as they were when the sh’ma was first recited. Our goal today is to collect stories and images and insights of a kind of learning that matters to the majority of North American children and families who take part in part-time Jewish learning. Our first question: What do you consider to be learner success? What do you take as evidence that part-time education matters to the learners? Can you share a vivid story that exemplifies the impact you believe is possible in learners?

Maxine Alloway: I define success as helping people to make meaningful choices about how to live their lives — giving children and families the tools and resources to make choices that are meaningful and intentional.

Mel Berwin: At Neveh Shalom, we run a Hebrew immersion program for newborns to eight year olds. Part of what we see as successful is that children are learning language in developmentally appropriate ways, from the youngest ages. Children get really excited about what they’re learning, and they demonstrate that learning with pride. Another measure of success is when parents seek new learning opportunities for themselves as a result of their children’s excitement, in turn reinforcing their children’s learning and bringing it into a family context.

Rob Weinberg: We see success in learners in four dimensions: knowing — that is, building knowledge and competency; doing, which leads to active participation in Jewish life; believing and valuing, which lead to a sense of purpose in one’s Jewish life; and belonging, which leads to a sense of being part of a community of meaning. Success, then, is Jewish learning that affects learners in all four domains, not necessarily at the same time. We see whether learners not only answer questions, but also make Jewish choices and decisions. Here’s a story about a congregation that developed a model of Shabbat community involving families in learning, praying, eating, and singing together. The children feel part of that community; they want to have their bar or bat mitzvah in the context of that community, because it’s become meaningful to them. In one instance recently, a bat mitzvah girl spoke eloquently about her sense of belonging, about the influence the community had on the values that informed her life choices, values modeled by her rabbi and educator and other professionals who she felt she could seek out in times of need.

Cyd Weissman: What kind of leadership enables a shift from a system where education is about preparing for an event for some day in the future to a holistic system that’s about being in community and experiencing today the myriad of ways Judaism enables you to live fully? What are the essential characteristics of leaders who create successful Jewish part-time learning?

Joy Levitt: Leaders today need to hold to seemingly incompatible truths. On the one hand, we need to listen carefully to what parents and children say about the kind of learning that works for them — what they’re looking for. At the same time, we must passionately engage them in possibilities that they perhaps can’t even imagine. If we don’t hear what parents are saying about their children’s experiences, then we just lose them. The parents simply opt out. But if we don’t create an excitement about things they don’t even see, then we fail as leaders.

Idit Jacques: Within part-time education is an extensive and amazing diversity of interest, and it is very difficult for any one institution to meet the range of experiences that families seek today. Leadership has to be more collaborative at the community level. We need a more adaptive leadership — people who are visionary and grounded in education, but also who are agile and responsive to a constantly changing arena of needs. I’m drawn to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s teaching that we need more text people than textbooks. We need leaders who can speak from experience about the importance of Jewish life and learning, who can establish personal relationships with children and families. It can’t be transactional; it has to be personal. Two teachers in our community offer alternative classes from their homes. Families flock to these two teachers because they inspire children, who see them as role models of living Jewishly. Children resonate with that authenticity.

Rob Weinberg: Educators today need to be prepared and unafraid to lead. They need to be collaborative leaders with vision and imagination to create experiences of learning that don’t necessarily look like the deeply embedded mental model we have of education as schooling. Preparing families to engage in models that are quite different from what they’re accustomed to, what they’re comfortable with, takes courage. Leaders also need to engage other leaders in their communities. Even when it is messy and difficult, it’s still worthwhile.

Joy Levitt: The larger community needs to support the risks leaders take and understand that a failure to act will be a much more serious problem than any mistakes we might make in changing this model. There’s a lot of anxiety about change. In fact, the modest success of the past decade or so has emboldened mediocrity. Some people say, “I am so proud of the road I’ve been able to get on.” Nobody says, “I am so proud of what I’m doing here,” or, “I now think of Judaism as a path that is going to help me understand friendship, my body, my growth, how I make hard decisions, what it means to be part of a community.” Until we hear those comments, we need more boldness.

Mel Berwin: It’s clear that one model doesn’t fit every congregation or community. In supplementary education, we rarely tackle the biggest issues: the structure of religious school or the outdated pedagogy we’re using. Leaders have to see that bigger picture, the vision, and the big questions. They need to strategize with other stakeholders to create a new model that takes more needs into account and that inspires, rather than obligates, families to participate.

Maxine Alloway: In our community, we create opportunities without creating situations where leaders demand followers — that is, we try to communicate that we’ll create the stage for participants, and they can use that stage however they want. People feel they have opportunities and choices rather than the need to follow a leader’s agenda.

Cyd Weissman: If we have the right leaders, how do we create the models that change where and when learning is taking place — who the learners and teachers are, and the “whys” and “hows” of engagement? What are the models that create deep impact?

Joy Levitt: We’re looking at models that, first and foremost, assume that although the synagogue is an important base for Jewish learning and living, it needs many other partners. We work on the premise that the whole Jewish community is the classroom. We don’t use words that are related to schooling because “school” is not the way we transmit culture, values, and the love of community. One can get wonderful Jewish experiences and knowledge in synagogues, JCCs, museums, federations, nursing homes, soup kitchens, and parks — really, throughout the community. So, collaborative learning is a big piece of how we’re visioning this new model. The second piece has to do with choice — enabling the child and family to choose the ways in which they want to learn, the time when they want to learn, the parameters of the experiences. Our model resembles a scouting model, wherein people have to achieve certain goals that are set by the community in collaboration with the child and family, but those goals can be met in a variety of different ways and in a variety of different places. This acknowledges differences in family structures, in learning styles, and in the range of gifts, talents, interests, and passions. Camping is a significant piece of the model, where Jewish camps are equal partners with all other institutions in broadening the focus of how a child perceives the community and its resources.

Cyd Weissman: Is there agreement that the model of dropping one’s child off at a school — where there is a good classroom and parents come three times a year — is not the one that’s going to have the important life outcome we’ve talked about?

Idit Jacques: I’m not sure I agree that the model of dropping off children is bad. At a recent congregational school meeting, one of the parents objected to the notion of family education. The parent said, “I’m doing so much haggling with my children over homework and sports and other things. I don’t want to haggle with them over religious school. I want to drop them off and know that their education is being addressed. I’m happy to participate a few times a year and we reinforce the learning at home.” That parent was very upset with the notion that we would change that model.

What’s essential in a model is choice: Different families need different options. We’re considering options like affinity groups for high school students — that is, grouping teens with other teens who have similar interests. It’s not about age or location, but creating a lot of different chavurot based on shared passions. We’re also considering hybrid learning models that might include online learning with monthly chevrutah learning. We are shifting from the model where the institution is central to a model where the learner is central. This allows us to focus on the student’s abilities, rather than on the building or schedule. The camp model — two weeks of religious school camp in the summer and four or five days over winter break, in addition to several Shabbatot retreats during the year — along with a family’s commitment to enrichment at home, is also on our horizon as a viable option.

Mel Berwin: I don’t want to vilify the model of dropping children off at religious educational programs. I understand the problem with the symbolism — that the rest of the family isn’t necessarily involved. It’s our job as educators to communicate to families our expectations for them as partners in the sacred work of Jewish education, and to inspire them with the opportunities we offer them and their children. We also must acknowledge that adults learn differently than children. It doesn’t make any sense to insist that adults learn at the same times or using the same formats as their children.

Maxine Alloway: I’ve noticed in our conversation, we’ve talked about both Jewish learning and Jewish living. In order to engage in Jewish living, we need to learn about Judaism. Children learn what they live. So our goal should be focused on families living Jewishly. We focus on family education and make sure that we have programs for the whole family as well as programs for just parents and others for just children. Sometimes, we have everyone together and then divide up. We also have some drop-off programs, but our starting point is giving families the tools they need to live Jewishly.

Joy Levitt: We need to be mindful of the developmental needs of children. To some extent, that means having them develop individual identities as Jews — not necessarily separate from their families, but certainly on their own. Whereas I think family education models work beautifully for preschool and up to third grade, the developmental work of elementary school/middle school children is understanding their own unique identity. At that age, children need something like a drop-off model. At that age, children need to be doing work independently of their parents.

Cyd Weissman: The family is central to raising a child’s Jewish spirit and identity. Our families, in their changing make-up and in our shifting world, overflow with essential questions of existence: How do we live meaningfully and lovingly in today’s mad rush and complexity? Effective models of education balance the “me” and the “we.” Models that matter give voice to the choice of the individual (me), and create a community (we) that asks one another and our tradition, “How do we raise a child to fulfill his or her sacred promise?” Engaging the family, not just in how to light a candle, but in how to light a life, is a model worthy of pursuit. What intergenerational models are working, where young people are building relationships with key mentoring adults other than or in addition to their parents?

Joy Levitt: In our model, children may choose a workshop in which adults also participate. We’re imagining a whole congregation deciding on 20 or 25 core values that it wants to privilege for the whole community. Then, all the families work toward completing learning and projects that resonate with that list. So, the congregation would offer a class geared to something on the list and congregants of all ages would learn together.

Rob Weinberg: We need to think about choice in both a macro and micro way. That is, there may be choice among various programmatic options within a model, or opting to take part in a model itself may be the opportunity to make a different choice. The learner needs to be an active agent in creating his or her own meaning and learning experience. Some of the newer models share characteristics with camping — a place where people live Judaism 24/7: They live in Jewish time; the learning is experiential in nature; and the children are enmeshed in a community, which is central to the learning. The learning is seamlessly integrated with the living — centered on the life that people are experiencing at the time. It’s essential that our learning be, at least some of the time, situated in a real life community of people of all ages who are practicing and finding meaning in Jewish life. Learning should not be divorced from living.

Cyd Weissman: Finally, let’s speak about bar and bat mitzvah: Does preparing for this milestone shape the agenda of Jewish learning environments?

Rob Weinberg: One of the well-intentioned mistakes we’ve made over the years was to link learning requirements to bar and bat mitzvah. The result is that people feel — once they reach that milestone — that they have fulfilled their requirements and they’re done. Bar and bat mitzvah should not shape our learning models, and yet they play an important role as milestones. Our mental model should be that bar mitzvah is an entry way, not an exit — an entry way to a life of learning and a sense of self as responsible for making Jewish choices.

Joy Levitt: I think bar and bat mitzvah should entirely shape the Jewish learning model. This would require us to radically rethink what we ask children to do in order to become bar or bat mitzvah. It is interesting that non-Orthodox communities have intensified requirements around bar and bat mitzvah. In order to grasp and utilize the power of the milestone for families and to maximize the opportunities, we ought to ask how the learning that leads up to bar and bat mitzvah will create engaged citizens in Jewish life. What are the skills and assets that we want this child to achieve in order to contribute in a robust way to our thriving Jewish community? It’s not an individual experience of leadership; it’s an experience of joining one’s community. The psychodynamic function for the child and family might be minimized, but the sense of joining and belonging to a community would be increased.

Rob Weinberg: Children are not just adults in training; we err if we conceive of their education solely as preparatory.

Maxine Alloway: What shapes the agenda, then, is the question of how to become a true member of a community. We then must ask: What does it mean to be an adult in this community? And then we must connect that to the preparation and experience of bar and bat mitzvah.

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Maxine Alloway coordinates the Kavana Cooperative’s family education program in Seattle. She is a PhD candidate in education at the University of Washington, with a focus on teacher learning.

Mel Berwin runs the Kochavim and Notz’tzim Hebrew immersion programs at Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon.

Rabbi Idit Jacques is vice president of Jewish education and identity at the Columbus Jewish Federation in Ohio. She oversees the WOW! Columbus Supplementary School Initiative, a pilot project that works with the community in partnership with JESNA, the Jewish Education Service of North America, to redesign Jewish supplementary education.

Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, formerly served as a rabbi at the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore in Manhasset, N.Y. She was a featured commentator in the 2008 PBS series “The Jewish Americans.”

In Chicago, Rob Weinberg, PhD, is the national director of the Experiment in Congrega­tional Education (ECE), an innovative project focused on synagogue transformation through Jewish learning. He now leads the ECE in its regional partnerships and advocacy efforts to re-imagine part-time Jewish education within and among congregations.

a The participants spoke with Cyd Weissman, director of Innovation in Congregational Learning for the Jewish Education Project (formerly BJE/SAJES), which helps congregations create new models of learning to enhance children’s and families’ ability to construct meaningful and purposeful lives rooted in Jewish practice and community. She also works with the Leadership Institute, a joint program of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, with funding from the UJA-Federation of New York, and the Experiment in Congregational Education, an initiative of HUC-JIR’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education in Los Angeles. The partnership is designed to create a landscape of congregational education that nurtures the lives of Jewish learners.

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