A dozen New Jersey parents, reviewing a recent field trip, discuss their children’s progress in an experiment in family-driven Jewish education. A California mother organizes a group of families to study traditional Jewish texts through storytelling. Local experts are hired to facilitate discussion. A group of Atlanta families participates in a home school Jewish learning collective emphasizing parent-child interaction. In Washington, D.C., a mother works with a group to establish a Hebrew charter school while a father coordinates efforts to develop a five-day-a week after school Jewish enrichment program. A group of parents in New York City also explores the after school model. In Phoenix, parents are creating a community-wide collaboration where families will choose from an array of educational programs offered by numerous local organizations. Philadelphia parents hire a rabbinical student to run a weekly Hebrew language immersion gathering for their children.
These efforts are a sampling of programs created by a small but growing vanguard of families addressing the Jewish educational needs of their children. Who are the parents behind these initiatives? What do they have in common? How might their actions inform the transformation of Jewish education?
These parents are all highly committed Jews, visionaries, entrepreneurs, and adept community builders. They are exploring models of organized Jewish education that are alternatives to conventional Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools. Committed to leading Jewish lives, some are products of day schools; many grew up in engaged Jewish families; most, if not all, are very active in their synagogues or independent minyanim, and they support the Jewish community at large. They all strive for a meaningful, vital, Jewish existence for themselves and their children.
All of these parents espouse an educational vision and confer with others about their hopes and dreams. They believe Jewish learning should be participatory and meaningful. While some try to influence existing programs, more recently they’ve begun creating their own educational initiatives.
Some of these parents are entrepreneurs in their professional lives, comfortable with the risk taking that creating something new entails. Their professional backgrounds are diverse: finance, foreign policy, bioengineering, organizational development, journalism, law, marketing, academia, and the rabbinate. Most of them understand start-up processes, including financial viability. As producers of new ideas, they embrace start-up models that are trim, focused, and flexible. They rely on experimentation and ongoing consumer input rather than on traditional methods that demand multiyear development phases. They are frustrated by Jewish education programs that remain wedded to earlier methods and are slow to innovate in response to the changing lives and needs of today’s families.
These parents are resourceful and experienced at finding human capital and information to fit the curriculum and content requirements of their initiatives. Some have advanced knowledge of Jewish studies and others are skilled at enlisting those with greater knowledge when the need arises. They want their children to have Jewish friends and learning peers, and to be educated within a supportive communal environment. Their visions resonate with other like-minded families.
It might be tempting to dismiss the leaders of these initiatives as marginal outsiders or anti-establishment types. Rather, they are part of a wider trend of empowered “prosumers” — parents who are blurring the intersection between the production and consumption of Jewish education. These prosumers may work in collaboration with local synagogues, or team up with other local entrepreneurial initiatives, or experiment outside the system. All are invested in learning from other innovative efforts and they are excited to connect with fellow change makers. They hope established Jewish educational institutions will follow by accelerating their pace of experimentation with new models and ways of thinking about Jewish learning.
Perhaps Jewish organizations and prosumers can look to the corporate world, where product design is shifting from inside-out to outside-in. Most large companies now accept that they operate in an ecosystem. The ecosystem serves them not just in improving their supply and distribution chains, but also, more importantly, in helping to turn the outside-in perspective into practical innovation. By building collaborative relationships with creative customers, companies like Apple, Kraft Foods, and Scholastic gain actionable insights. This means that particularly knowledgeable, innovative, and dedicated customers become more involved and invested in helping to shape future outcomes. Co-creation encourages organizations and customers to work together on creative solutions to challenging problems. While this entails letting go of old paradigms, this change toward co-creation lends itself to the development of more nimble and responsive organizations. Might Jewish education benefit from a similar model?