3rd graders from Temple Sholom in Broomall, Pa; photo courtesy.

By Anna Marx

[This is the ninth in a weekly series of posts from a coalition of institutions across the continent devoted to nurturing the emerging transformation of congregational and part-time Jewish education. The series is curated by the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson Graduate School of Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.]

We are sitting on a goldmine of opportunity. Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of families across North America who are signed up, ready, and eager for meaningful, life-changing Jewish education.

Hundreds of thousands of kids are enrolled in part-time Jewish education programs across North America. Right now. In the 21st century, a time of infinite choice and unlimited demands on their attention, these families have made an incredible decision – they have chosen Jewish education for their children.

They’re enrolled and ready. So what’s the problem? We, the larger Jewish community, aren’t giving them the best we have to offer. We aren’t investing in these kids.

The context that synagogue educators live in today is one in which the prevailing narrative around part-time Jewish education is incredibly negative. We’re told again and again that these educational programs don’t stack up next to other educational offerings like camp or day school. The problem with this negative conversation, one that has been going on for much too long, is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s take a look at three key factors that are part of, or even products of, this narrative:

1. Funders are backing away from this field, looking instead for the educational programs that are valued and trusted in our community. As funds decrease, support systems and materials begin to disappear from these programs. Who suffers from the lack of funding? The students.

2. Talented educators are seeking jobs outside of the part-time sector. Rightly so, they want jobs that offer prestige among their colleagues. Who suffers when we struggle to attract excellent educators? The students.

3. Parents are buying into the idea that part-time education can look only one way. Ironically, they expect a model of Hebrew school that looks and feels similar to their own experience. Educators then struggle to offer different models because parents don’t appreciate or accept these models as legitimate forms of education. Who suffers from the lack of experimentation and innovation? The students.

Hundreds of thousands of children across North America receive their primary Jewish experiences in part-time educational settings. But we have created a system that struggles to serve them. Here’s a new narrative I’d like the Jewish community to try out for a while:

“We, the leaders of the Jewish community (funders, professionals, and volunteers), are committed to ensuring that every single child whose family chooses a Jewish education – of any kind – receives the highest quality educational experience we can possibly offer.”

To get started, let’s battle each of these issues head on.

1. MegaInvest in Part-Time Education

Education is expensive. Excellent education is even more expensive. It takes people, space, time, materials, ongoing assessment, professional development, marketing, scholarships, and much more. Schools are rarely self-sustainable through tuition dollars alone. I spoke to the founder of one particularly innovative program recently. He told me that only 25% of his budget comes from tuition and fees. Everything else must be raised.

We need funding to support the operation of programs, attract excellent educators, offer professional development and provide other support services for professionals, technology, curriculum, and more. To learn the most effective ways that make a difference in our learners’ lives, we need investments that invite risky experimentation. Many experiments fail. That’s great. So long as we’re failing forward, we move forward. But in our current conditions of extraordinarily tight resources, educational leaders are afraid to experiment and fail. Let’s give them a safety net and let them bring dreams to reality.

2. Create Exciting Innovation Positions for Educators

With support for funding and consulting, we could create fellowships and positions that demand change and experimentation. These positions are about much more than a title change. They must be real positions with innovation explicitly included in the job description. We would train educators both to make change and to support congregations to embrace and expect change.

3. Invest in Parents

It will not be enough to ensure that the children receive excellent learning experiences. We must make a concerted effort to provide meaningful impact on whole families. This goes beyond family education. Parents themselves need to be brought into the conversation many of us have been having for decades. We must invest in parents learning about what is in store for their kids. We need to empower parents to take on leadership roles in envisioning a bright future for their kids’ education. And this begins with helping parents to see that the Hebrew school of their past is not the Hebrew school of their kids’ present and is most certainly not going to be the education we have to offer in the future.

Hundreds of thousands of kids are enrolled and waiting. They’re waiting for us. There isn’t a moment to lose.

Anna Marx is the project director of Shinui: the Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education, which represents ten North American community agencies: Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Toronto. She is also chief strategy officer of Jewish Learning Venture in Philadelphia.

This article is cross posted at eJewishPhilanthropy