A community responsibility
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A community responsibility

Day schools are great.

Day schools are effective.

Day schools yield committed, knowledgeable Jewish adults.

The Jewish community has spent years touting the benefits of day school education. Have we been distracted by the shiny object?

Day schools are not the vehicle of choice for the vast majority of the North American Jewish community. In fact, a majority of our Jewish children are being educated in synagogue-based religious schools. Therefore, there is a moral imperative to invest in the vehicle through which we must inspire the next generation and our collective vibrant Jewish future.

We have spent a generation disproportionately focused on day schools, thereby relegating supplemental religious schools to second-class status. Our efforts have done nothing to increase day school choice in the majority of the Jewish community, but they have helped demoralize supplemental school education directors and deplete the pool of qualified, inspiring religious school teachers. We have consigned our number one opportunity to inspire and ignite a lifelong love of Judaism and positive Jewish identity to “less than,” to a kind of wannabe status.

Although Jewish federations, including ours, have invested in change processes for synagogue-based schools, on the whole it has fallen off the radar as a communal and philanthropic priority.

As in many communities, our northern New Jersey synagogues were experiencing membership drop-off post bar/bat mitzvah as well as a low percentage of enrollment in Hebrew high school. This sad statistic demands the question: How effective is what we are doing when so many consumers leave once their transaction – bar or bat mitzvah – is complete?

We asked our congregation leaders, both lay and professional, these questions: What do we want the products of your synagogue’s religious school to look like? What are your community’s goals for each child? What are the parents’ goals for that child? One of our synagogue leaders responded, in part: “I would want them to find strong meaning in their Jewish identity, which may not be demonstrated in the same way I would, but it would be a positive Jewish identity. We spend so much time in congregational schools prepping for bar mitzvah prayers, but if our goal for our children is a strong Jewish identity, raising Jewish grandchildren, and embracing a role in the Jewish community – what can we do not just as educators, but as congregational leaders to move us forward in that goal.”

Enter ATID – Addressing Transformative Innovative Design in Jewish Education.

ATID is a school improvement, system change/capacity building venture through which federation provides best practice, resource research, education, and facilitation services to change-ready synagogue schools. (It is designed in collaboration with Debra Brosan, CEO of Gestaltworks.) The nurturing and molding of our future Jewish adults is an all-inclusive community responsibility. Religious school innovation initiatives must be rooted in partnership with the synagogue board (not just slotted into a box on a organizational chart for the synagogue’s board of education). Through ATID, we work with synagogue teams on their mission and vision, brainstorm alternative models, get feedback from stakeholders, and develop metrics for success.

The synagogues that participate in our ATID initiative must have a full team comprised of its senior rabbi, lead education professional, school board president, a synagogue executive committee member (not the president, but someone in line to take that position), a teacher, and a parent. In year one, 5774, five synagogues participated in the ATID process. This year, 5775, we have three synagogues participating in ATID.

The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative has hosted two conferences focusing on alternative models of religious school education. The first conference, held in November 2013, was attended by rabbis, educators, synagogue leadership, parents, and thought leaders in Jewish education in North America. That included 100 people representing 34 synagogues in the northern New Jersey area. A guide was published in November 2013 as a support document for the workshop.

An early lesson learned was that for many schools, a cookie cutter, one-model approach does not work. Rather, many of the schools adapted a blend of different models. In response to this data point, this year’s Alternative Models of Religious School workshop, held in November, focused entirely on hybrid models – those that cannot be defined as just one thing (camp, Shabbat, project-based learning), but show components of many models. An addendum reflecting this research was published in conjunction with the workshop. A hallmark of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative and deployed in these guides is that they feature only models that are deployed successfully in suburban communities within the United States. Relatability and replicability are keys to instilling confidence in those who are change-ready – and in overcoming barriers with the less-ready.

Exposure to innovative ideas was and is not enough, however. We have given synagogues tools to analyze characteristics and outcomes of models to determine what they need to do in order to achieve their desired outcome.

With five schools (representing eight synagogues) piloting new endeavors, and three more beginning the process, we know we are touching nearly 700 students and more than 7,000 Jewish adults who make up those communities and who share the communal responsibility of raising tomorrow’s Jewish adults.

We at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey are fully committed to outcomes. We stand ready to contribute to and participate in a larger communal conversation on this critical issue.

Let’s focus on what we want and work backwards toward purposefully and relentlessly achieving our goals.

Call us.

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