A Note from Jeff: A True Confession

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I’ve just celebrated my one year anniversary as the Executive Director for the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE), and I feel the need for a confession. There is something that I did in my youth that I might have “forgotten” to tell the Search Committee during the interview process and sort of slipped my mind when I was offered the job by the Board. With the spat of recent articles in the Jewish Press condemning this practice, I now feel compelled to make a full confession.   

I am a congregational school and community Hebrew school graduate. There, I said it and it is out in the open. Yes, I was young. Yes, the decision to do it was largely out of my control. However the time has come to take full responsibility for my actions, regardless of how “un PC” they may appear. As a boy growing up in Pittsburgh I attended the Hebrew Institute and Congregation Beth Shalom Hebrew Schools and as a teen attended the School of Advanced Jewish Studies, Pittsburgh’s community sponsored supplementary high school program. Though I eventually also participated in Camp Ramah, Young Judaea and Israel trips, if not for my supplementary school experiences, I would not have participated in these informal Jewish educational experiences. It was my congregational school experience that provided the basis and doorway into all of my other formal and informal Jewish education experiences.  

Reading the recent unflattering pronouncements about congregational education has caused me to reflect upon what I know, what I believe and what I want to know about congregational and other forms of complimentary Jewish education.

 ·         I know that between 65-70% of all children receiving a Jewish education do so in a supplementary Jewish education setting. This means 250,000 children are currently being taught by approximately 25,000 teachers in over 2,000 congregational and community school programs. 

·         I know that, as Scott Shay points out, each congregational school takes pride in its “uniqueness” and autonomy, and yet almost all of these programs appear to follow a very similar model. I want to know about the “different” models. Where are they and what do they look like? 

·         I know that we talk about success and failure of congregational education, yet I don’t believe we have clearly defined these terms. Is success knowledge and skills attained or is it continuation in post bar/bat mitzvah Jewish educational programs or is it Jewish grandchildren? I want to know how we define benchmarks for success. 

·         I know that there is a widespread perception that congregational and supplementary schools are failing. I believe this to be the “general perception” on the street. With funding from the Covenant Foundation the St. Louis Central Agency for Jewish Education is exploring perceptions about congregational education. This study has found that the less involved a person is in the school, the more negative his/her perception of the program. The more involved he or she is in the school program, the more positive he/she feels about the educational experience. I want to know the difference between perception and reality. 

·         I know that congregational schools can make a difference. According to Steven Cohen’s research based upon the 2000 Jewish Population Study, congregational education does make an impact on ones Jewish identity. The more hours, the greater the impact, with the greatest impact occurring when the congregational school experience is supported by additional informal Jewish educational experiences as well (camp, youth group, Israel). More is more. I want to know what it would take to make a greater difference for more of our students. 

·         I know that there are more professional development opportunities for Jewish educators than ever before, yet there still remains a critical shortage of Jewish educators. I firmly believe that without additional excellent Jewish educators we will be unable to provide excellent Jewish education. I want to know how we can do a better job of providing kavod to our educators and do a better job at recruiting and retaining our educators in the field.  

·         I know that twenty years ago in 1988 the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York produced a study called “Jewish Supplementary Schooling: An Educational System in Need of Change”. This study found that  ”pupils do not learn very much, the progress in each subject is limited” and that “schools have not been able to increase the Jewish involvement” of students (p.13). The study also found great promise and opportunities for change. In particular the study called for greater involvement of families and formation of new “family Jewish education” initiatives. I believe that there has been change in the past twenty years. I want to know what has changed and what has improved. 

·         I know that there are a number of new change initiatives – (NESS, PELIE, STAR, L’ATID, ECE.) I want to know what we have learned from these initiatives. 

·         I know that the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements have recently undertaken major initiatives in congregational education. I want to know if these initiatives have been successful and how they each measure success. 

·         I know that the publishing houses and movements are producing more and higher quality text books and materials than ever before. I want to know what impact this is having in the classroom. 

·         I believe that there exist models of good practice, models of successful programs, and new initiatives in congregational education. I want to be able to identify these programs and understand  the factors that enable congregational education to succeed. 

·         I believe that there are exciting new alternative models to congregational education, however I don’t know where they are. I want to know what these programs look like and what factors enable them to succeed. 

·         I know that the recent call for greater integration of informal Jewish education, into formal congregational school programs isn’t new. Over eighty year’s ago Samson Benderly, the founding Director of the Board of Jewish Education of New York first suggested blending the formal and the informal so that ”leisure time, living time would also be learning time.” Benderly envisioned Hebrew school in the form of an ideal Jewish community, and attempted to reproduce this community through integrating clubs, youth groups, summer camp, games, theater, music, family, in-home learning and other informal activities into the Hebrew school program. Similar calls for greater integration of formal and informal programs were heard in the 1960’s and 1970’s with the growth of retreat and Shabbaton programs. For example the 1975 issue of the Pedagogic Reporter was devoted to “Camping as an In-school Experience”. CAJE has always been a strong proponent of integrating the formal with the informal. I know there is a power within learning communities based upon integrated formal and informal learning experiences. I want to know where are the successful models of today that break out of the dichotomy of formal and informal, that break down the silos of classroom, youth group, camping, family education, and adult education and provide for an integrated holistic learning experience.  

·         And finally I know that CAJE would like to create a place and a time time, where practitioners, teachers, educational directors, rabbis, lay leaders, researchers, policy makers, and donors can all come together and reveal what we know, challenge our beliefs, explore what we don’t know and use our collective knowledge towards transforming our schools. 

This is what I know, believe and want to know. 

What do YOU know about congregational education? 

What do YOU believe about congregational education? 

What do YOU want to know about congregational education? 

Post your thoughts on the blog and let’s continue the conversation. 

B’shalom,

 Jeffrey Lasday

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3 Responses to “A Note from Jeff: A True Confession”

  1. Jill Wildenberg Says:

    We are struggling with the development of a curriculum that has meaning and is values-based. It is more important to us that the students make associations between what they read in the TaNaKh and their everyday lives than the ability to recite facts without understanding. We would like them to be able to “relate” to their Jewish history and culture. A dilemma.

  2. Andra Rose Says:

    I know and want to know all the same things. A task force in my congregation has been reading and talking and envisioning for the past year. One key component to success (by which I mean kids are relatively happy community members, can see their own progress, and parents are taking their own steps deeper into Jewish) that we’ve identified is excellent teachers who stay and build a program together. Most of our teachers are college students who come and go, both the fabulous and the mediocre move on after a year or two, or if we’re really lucky, three. So the model of hiring full-time staff to draw high caliber, stable teachers is appealing. To do that, the classes have to meet on different days and the teachers have to teach multiple levels and take on some combination of other roles like teen advisors or family educators or camp directors or early childhood teaching. Where can we find people prepared for, or willing to learn how to do, all that?

    Another model that appeals to me is a week or two of summer camp and then Shabbat programming and independent Hebrew learning. Get the whole family involved. I’ve heard of two congregations doing something like this. But we’d need to know a lot about the implementation, reception, and results of this model before making such a big change.

    Then there’s the after school program model, providing a homey program for families who need a place for the kids until they finish their work day. The kids settle into a relaxed routine, have electives, Hebrew, hang out time, do a little homework, get a little excercise. Works well in a metropolitan area, but we’re in a small community with lots of after school activities to compete with. Can it work in this environment?

    We’ve been looking at the a la carte model too. Families would create a “covenant” including what each member will do to further their Jewish learning and/or observance. That could work in a diverse community like ours (we’re the only shul in town besides Chabad). What we need to know about this model is how to put together a lot of choices of electives and Shabbat activities, for all ages and levels of observance without going broke. And we also need to figure out how we can maintain community when everyone is doing different activities, age cohorts aren’t together regularly, etc.

    Anyone out there with experience with any of these models, please contact me.

    Andra Rose
    ar@andrarose.com

  3. Debby Kinman-Ford Says:

    I know that congregations vary so much depending on size, region and so on that taking on these conversations is exciting and exhausting. Our religious school has reinvented themselves to a more practical, hands-on experiential approach and is seeing increased enrollment and attendance. I know at the day school level where I am involved, we are constantly looking at the community continum of services to reach all levels of observance and life cycle. A daunting task for sure. I know that unless it is once a year at a conference, professionals are not talking on a regular basis about their worlds. If we can get together with local collegues once a month for lunch to vent, exchange ideas and so on, why can’t we make that happen nationally…monthly blog topic, conference call etc.

    Lastly I know that Jewish educators are amazing and tireless people who are more interested in ‘making it happen than finding reasons for it not to happen.’

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