Photo credit: David Blaikie/Flickr

By Lesley Litman and Julie Vanek

Experience shows that while innovative Jewish leaning looks very different from setting to setting it also shares important common elements.

“He was able to learn without even realiz[ing] how much he was learning! He had little interest in the traditional classroom learning style, and his love of art and learning in general really made this perfect!”
Parent of a 4th grader in Omanut, Temple Beth Elohim, Wellesley

“This whole Caring Corps process is bringing families into the congregation in a more meaningful way.”
Caring Committee Liaison, Temple Shir Tikvah, Winchester

Successful clothing stores stock many sizes and types of clothing. Bakeries offer all kinds of pastries to meet a wide range of tastes and needs. Yet, at their core, both clothing stores and bakeries offer a recognizable product, each with its own unique spin, but recognizable nevertheless.

So, too, have we learned in Boston, that impactful Jewish learning in the congregational setting can look dramatically different in a given congregation (depending on the nature of the community, interests, size, resources and more) yet, at their core, these experiences have certain elements in common. In the weeks since Pesach, through a series of blog posts, we at CJP’s Jewish Learning Connections (JLC) have shared multiple frameworks for Jewish learning that have been developed, experimented with and ultimately implemented in congregations in the Greater Boston Jewish community. On the surface these frameworks might appear different but, as we have discovered in our work over the past number of years, the design and implementation of successful change and the frameworks themselves share a number of characteristics in both development and implementation phases (although, the phases are not necessarily in the same order in a given congregation).

In this summative blog post we look at two aspects of the educational innovations that have taken hold in congregations: the process of innovation (how did we get here) and their shared characteristics (the innovation itself).

Educators tell us that the greatest support CJP offers them through Jewish Learning Connections is the opportunity to work intensively and extensively with a consultant. This matches findings in a January 2014 report titled Spreading and Sustaining Innovation in Congregational Education: Accomplishments and Lessons Learned from The Jewish Education Project in New York.. JLC consultants support the educational leaders behind-the-scenes offering resources, serving as supportive guides and sounding boards while simultaneously pushing them in new directions. In an interview conducted by Pizer Associates, one Boston Education Director notes: “…I work in isolation…. [Our consultant] helped in…visioning…to refine what we were doing.” Other educators note that their consultants were partners in every way, often leading meetings or strategy sessions with lay leaders or teachers. Some state that their consultants worked with them on “defining goals, managing change and problem solving. Being from the outside…[they can] say things that someone inside couldn’t.”

We and our congregations recognized early on that implementation of a single innovation does not mark the end of the process. A hallmark of the partnership between JLC and congregations is joint engagement in on-going reflection and continually evolving iterations of the innovation. Our Innovators’ Community of Practice (mirrored by a parallel Consultants’ Community of Practice) provides a space to share, probe and reflect with colleagues. According to one educator, the community of practice provides “…a safe place to bring ideas, feel supported and grow.” More than an opportunity to share successes, trusted colleagues who are engaged in similar work view the community of practice as a place to seek guidance from one another when they encounter challenges.

As various innovations gain traction in congregations throughout Greater Boston, we take pride in noting that they share key characteristics: Learning that is

  • active,
  • life-centered,
  • relationship-based and
  • rich in content.

Rachel Happel, Director of K-12 Learning at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham writes: “Powerful relationships, deep and meaningful learning and authentic projects are at the heart of Mayim which is, in turn, at the heart of our congregation.” Hannah Richman, Director of Omanut at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley notes: “When faced with a combination of learning/art-making that is authentic and relevant to student experience,… that makes connections between art and text with dedicated time for reflection, and that results in high quality art … – the depth of the education experience has been transformative for all those involved.”

Innovation is by nature evolutionary. For example, this year, five years into their innovation, Temple Chayai Shalom used their experience with project-based/expeditionary learning to re-imagine the 7th grade experience. Temple Beth Shalom, also in its fifth year of innovation, is opening their first classes of Mayim Tamid next year, an opportunity for children to participate in Mayim on multiple afternoons each week, deepening an already rich experience. Temple Beth Elohim offers a taste of Omanut to younger children and will now expand their options for grades 4-5 to include science and technology and other options based on the Omanut model.

Jewish Learning Connections is eager to share our learning with other congregations seeking to adapt innovative frameworks in their own settings. Although we do not offer “ready to wear” clothing or “slice and bake” pastries, these frameworks combined with the processes that contribute to their design and implementation will enable others to innovate faster and more confidently.

Lesley Litman is the Boston Project Coordinator of the Experiment in Congregational Education and Director of the Executive MA Program in Jewish Education, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Julie Vanek is the Director of Jewish Learning Connections at CJP.

This article is part of a series from Jewish Learning Connections. The articles were originally posted on and are reprinted with permission.