The Jewish month of Elul is the perfect time for this symposium, and not just because synagogues are opening of their religious school doors to young people and their parents for another year of Jewish learning. Elul is the very season of return. This month, in anticipation of the new year, we pause to recommit ourselves, communally and individually, to the enterprise of Jewish life and learning. So it’s the perfect time not only to imagine the future, but also to examine ways to inspire the next generation to discover joy in Jewish learning.
Dr. Charles Edelsberg’s recent essay, characteristically, is both exciting and challenging. Jewish learning in the future, Reform or otherwise, will need to be more personal, more multimedia- and tech-savvy, and increasingly positioned as a lifelong endeavor. But the point that resonated most with me, based on the insight of The Power of Pull, is that to succeed, Jewish education will need to be relationship-based, rather than didactic and transactional.
Let’s be honest about the past and present of Reform Jewish education: Although there are important pockets of innovation, the synagogue religious school is not fundamentally different than it was one or even two generations ago. Most temples have “formal” classrooms, teachers, and students, and curricula that lead to bar and bat mitzvah. Thankfully, we have made enormous strides with family education, retreats, and “informal education,” both in and out of the classroom. And yet, we are still, overwhelmingly, organized around what Dr. Edelsberg’s calls “schooling” as opposed to education. He rightly argues that the shifts in information and communication call into question the very role of the formal school, forcing us to ask this critical question: What is the role of formal schooling in today’s 24/7, completely connected environment?
I would take it one step further.
Despite enormously creative innovation and experimentation, Reform Jewish education today is, by some measure, failing. Fifty percent of teens who become bar and bat mitzvah drop out of synagogue participation by tenth grade, and 80 percent drop out by their senior year. Why does that matter? Over and above the question of how much “content knowledge” students retain (my hunch is that it’s not much), the alienation from Jewish communal participation that this schooling continues to engender should alarm us.
That’s why the language of The Power of Pull resonates with me. Over and over again, when asked why they continue to engage in Jewish communal life, involved teens, parents, and others describe the inspiration created by key relationships with those who kept them engaged. They describe a dynamic rabbi, a loving cantor, an inspiring teacher, a camp counselor or a youth advisor, a peer mentor, or someone else in their social or educational network who invited and sustained their participation. They describe moving experiences shared with others and memorable moments they will never forget. Although I don’t remember much of what I learned in all those years of Sunday school, I certainly do remember the wonderful people and the inspiring experiences we shared.
The Reform Movement launched the Campaign for Youth Engagement (CYE) with this paramount insight as a baseline assumption: In the context of inspiring Jewish experiences, we need to foster stronger and deeper relationships with and among teens, parents, and families, in order to turn the dropout rate on its head. No one is more committed to the CYE than are the members of the National Association of Temple Educators, who yearn to change the dynamic and are willing to test new modes aggressively.
There are some compelling examples of success across the Reform Movement. Congregations such as B’nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, VA, Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA, and Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC, retain nearly 100 percent of their teens through high school because they have elevated learning through individual relationships and transformative experiences. As Rabbi Fred Guttman of Greensboro likes to say, “Youth engagement is not a curriculum; it’s the curriculum.” To be sure, there are other examples – but not nearly enough.
So what’s the implication for the future of Reform Jewish education? Perhaps this will be the generation that ends “schooling” in favor of new models of engaged, inspired learning and community. This fall, the URJ and HUC-JIR jointly launched the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution as one step toward that possibility. If we are going to be honest about synagogue education, let’s be honest too, about bar and bat mitzvah. After all, that is now the end game for so many of our kids. Shouldn’t our goal be to have such a creative and exciting build up to the b’nai mitzvah experience – and to have a once-in-a-lifetime transformative experience of the event itself so that our young people will not abandon our synagogues afterward, but rather yearn to continue onward? As Dr. Isa Aron explained when we first started imagining the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution: If we can change that, we might be able to change everything.
Now more than ever, during these sacred days of renewal and return, the time has come to focus on how we bring people (parents and their children) into relationships with one another and with talented, engaging facilitators of Jewish learning who will inspire and promote just that—not more “schooling.” How appropriate that now, on the brink of the new year, we can lay the groundwork for such a critical new beginning.
This post is part of our Virtual Symposium on Jewish Education. Read the rest of the posts submitted by Reform Jewish educators across the Movement.