Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Supplementary Jewish Education: The State of the Art

The Autumn 2007 issue of Contact, the journal of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life just came out, and the topic is "Supplementary Jewish Education: What Can Be Done?"

Editor Eli Valley writes in his opening piece:

"... for the majority of American Jews, afternoon schools are and will continue to be the preferred venue of Jewish education. Instead of declaring the demise of Hebrew schools, the community should recommit itself to making afternoon schools work ... afternoon schools can take the initiative in creating innovative, dynamic and rewarding Jewish educational experiences ... that can help form the cornerstone of a revivified Jewish life."

Steinhardt's own contribution advocates for moving supplementary school out of synagogues and away from a curriculum oriented toward bar/bat mitzvah, in favor of home-based learning in small groups. The issue features several profiles of schools by their directors, including the Kesher after-school Hebrew programs in Cambridge and Newton, Tribeca Hebrew in New York City, and Prozdor High School in Boston. There are also more topical pieces on the role of community and vision in making Bar/Bat Mitzvah and family education meaningful.

Other articles include an overview by Nathan Laufer of the work being done by his organization, PELIE, to disseminate both the Kesher model and the model of the NESS program from Philadelphia's Auerbach agency, an explanation of the principles behind the Chai and Mitkadem curricula from the Reform Movement by Rabbis Jan Katzew and Daniel Freedlander, and one by yours truly on the full-time teacher model at Central Synagogue in New York. This is, to my knowledge, the first time that a description of this initiative has appeared on the web. I conclude:

"...It seems self-evident that having more qualified and better compensated teachers working longer hours with more responsibilities outside the classroom will improve a religious school program. The real value of such a shift, however, is the opportunity it provides to align the school’s curriculum, prayer experiences, and social justice activities with the vision and values of the synagogue as a whole. The integration of the religious school faculty into the daily life of the synagogue and the lives of its families provides new potential for building communities of learning and engaged Jewish living. True institutional transformation will come not only from improved pedagogy, but also from the creation of meaningful communal experiences outside the classroom."

The final word in the issue goes to Bill Robinson, who just two weeks ago became Chief Planning and Knowledge Officer for the BJE of NY. In a turn of phrase reminiscent of Douglas Rushkoff, he writes:

" Authentic Jewish Education we will recognize and honor those who have wrestled with Judaism before us. We will also metaphorically kill Judaism every day by taking it apart, turning it upside down and pulling it inside out — constantly creating the new while remembering the past."

Of course, no issue could cover everything - for me, the conspicuous absence is anything relating to technology - but this issue certainly provides one of the most accessible overviews of new trends in supplementary education currently available. Enjoy!

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