Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Who will teach the kids of Hadar?

With all the attention being given to the success of independent prayer and study communities of 20 and 30 somethings, one cannot help but wonder how things will look several years in the future if these communities continue to thrive. Presumably, increasing numbers of the participants will become parents, and children will play an expanding role in the life of these communities.

Currently, when “independent minyanim” talk about learning, they mainly think about how to sustain and expand the study opportunities for their adult membership (see, for example, Hadar’s meeting notes from January 2005, outlining it's 3-5 year vision). I think it is not too early to ask: how will the next generation of children of the non-synagogue world be Jewishly educated?

This blog entry is intended to open up an ongoing discussion about this question and an examination of the different possibilites for Jewish education for the children of these independent minyanim. I hope that you will respond by challenging any of the assumptions or conclusions presented and by offering new insights into the topic.

Here's a sketch of the major options, as I see them:
  1. DAY SCHOOLS: Probably the majority of the parents will send their children to Jewish day schools, and the number of pluralistic/community schools are already growing at a tremendous pace. Many day schools already have a population spread over a number of synagogues, and adding a few independent minyanim into the mix will be no real change.

    This is probably, for the most part, good news for the day schools: Participants in these independent minyanim not only bring a culture of participation and volunteerism, but are also often Jewishly knowledgeable and strongly committed. A key concern to address here will be the high cost of day school education and making sure that financial aid will be available to those among this population who need it.

  2. SYNAGOGUE SCHOOLS: Some families will, of course, join synagogues so that they may enroll their children in their schools (especially synagogue nursery schools), participate in their “tot Shabbat” programs, or for B’nai Mitvah. Parents will have to weigh how to balance between their participation in the synagogue community and in the minyan. However, as the independent minyanim do not offer all of the services (worship and otherwise) that a synagogue provides, many of their participants may already affiliate, at least loosely, with a congregation.

    Certainly, a number of synagogues are moving to pluralistic models of community that can provide a home for those who attend independent minyanim. The fee for synagogue membership will be an issue, and synagogues may be reluctant to make it possible for non-members to attend their schools.

  3. INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS: There have always been alternatives to the synagogue school programs. For example, Workman’s Circle/Arbeter Ring still runs a number of secular Yiddish cultural schools (my mom went to one), and Chabad runs nursery and supplementary schools that target a diverse , unaffiliated population. Parents who attend these schools that want their children to become bar or bat mitzvah can either organize it privately or through a synagogue.

    An opportunity may exist here for the building of non-denominational and non-secular schools that would speak to the parents of independent minyanim in a way that cultural or Chabad schools would not – the question is, who would fund such a venture?

  4. GROWING THEIR OWN SCHOOL: Could the independent minyanim found their own schools as was done by, for example, by Kolot Chayeinu or Brooklyn Jews? Starting up an educational-program is complicated. Most of these minyanim are volunteer-driven; while folks may be willing to volunteer to lead a session at Limmud, most educational programs rely upon at least a few paid professionals. Could a part-time, volunteer-driven school model work, with perhaps a “community organizer” as the only paid position?

    Such a venture would take a lot of dedication and a lot energy on the part of the members of the minyanim, which might be difficult to sustain. On the one hand, these are to some degree the same folks who volunteer at Lishmah, Limmud, and other adult-learning opportunities, so they already have the experience and the know-how; on the other hand, the all-volunteer-driven Lishmah only endured for two years.

  5. What about alternatives to formal schooling altogether?

  6. TUTORING: An ever-increasing number of parents have their children tutored privately at home, often in small groups. Generally such programs (such as Partners with Parents) offer tutoring in academic subjects and test-preparation as well as Hebrew, Jewish studies, and bar and bat mitzvah preparation. This model allows for greater individualization of the curriculum, personal attention, and flexibility in scheduling, and enables the building of multiple-year relationships between teachers and families. Success is often predicated on the charisma of the teachers (although this may not be any different from any of the above models).

    A major concern here is the high cost of private tutoring. However, one advantage for participants in independent minyanim is that they may not need to worry about private tutoring being an isolating experience, as they already have a worship community.

  7. HOME-SCHOOLING: Certainly, a good number of the parents within the world of independent minyanim have the knowledge-base to provide their children with a Jewish education without needing to rely upon outside sources. Children in many of these families will learn about Shabbat, Jewish holidays, life-cycle events, and so on the “old-fashioned way” – by doing them.

    Already, websites like JewishFamily.com provide a good starting point, and there are both websites and active yahoo groups (often started by parents) in order to support one another. There’s plenty of technology available for home-based and individualized Jewish learning (for example, as in the JBOP software from JeMM.

    Finding the useful resources, however, can be a challenge, and once again, volunteer and amateur efforts (and those of small production companies) may be difficult to sustain. Another opportunity may exist here to provide parents with centralized resources and guidance. The participation of professionals and experts as community organizers and curriculum developers may be critical for the success of this do-it-yourself approach.

  8. “INFORMAL” EDUCATION: Programs such as youth groups, Israel trips, and summer camps are generally thought of as an add-on for a child’s Jewish education, and certainly could round out any of the above approaches. Could such programs build upon their successes and organize year-round, family-oriented opportunities, or would this diffuse their effectiveness at what they are already doing?

The good news is that there’s no lack of options already available for the families of the independent minyanim. The challenges, as I see them, are twofold.

On the one hand, the models that are built around a professional staff (such as day schools, supplementary schools and tutoring) can be prohibitively expensive. Families with a modest income may need financial assistance or the programs may require new kinds of funding in order to make them affordable to the full spectrum of the Jewish community. Could donors within the Jewish community make it possible for every Jewish child to have a free education, just as Taglit-birthright Israel provides trips to Israel?

On the other hand, models that are built around a volunteer base (such as home-schooling) are difficult to sustain and may require an expertise that not all parents share. Could the independent minyanim - or the larger Jewish community - provide easily accessible and inexpensive support for those parents and institutions that need the resources – both in curriculum and in community organization? And who would fund such initiatives?

I look forward to reading your thoughts!

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