For decades, Jewish communities, institutions and individuals have failed to fix the elephant in the room — the quality of Jewish education. Although many Jewish day schools boast excellent secular studies, Hebrew and Jewish studies have faced a tsunami of challenges, many of which have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. These include the difficulties of recruiting and retaining teachers, lack of a clear vision or suitable curricula and a lack of funds.
Many, if not most, schools are aware of these challenges. Dedicated boards, leadership teams and teachers work tirelessly to grapple with these challenges to improve their schools, bit by bit. They follow a model of incremental changes, both because it demonstrates some success and because they lack the resources to take a paradigm-shifting approach. But the problem with making change incrementally is the risk that any changes may still be subject to the existing infrastructure — which might itself be the core problem.
But the informal Jewish education sector — that is, the various educational organizations outside of the school system — has taken the opposite approach. Birthright Israel, long-term Israel programs and the Jewish camping world are just a few examples of organizations that have brought in some genuinely ground-breaking initiatives and significant educational resources over the last 20 years. Their backers and innovators realized that the “incremental change” model was no longer working.
Although these organizations did not invent new ideas, they did work out how to scale them up, improve their innovative culture and attract significant funding in the hundreds of millions of dollars. They marketed their brand so it would be easily recognizable. They also set very high safety and logistics standards and required their guides to undergo formal training, thereby turning pre-existing good programs into excellent ones.
It is time for Jewish schools to learn from the informal sector’s example and consider how to usher in dramatic changes to Hebrew and Jewish studies. And changes are sorely needed. When it comes to secular curricula, governments and other public bodies (in most countries) set standards, provide resources and train teachers — oversight that results in an outstanding quality of resources. But Jewish and Hebrew studies do not have the same guidance from a centralized government, organization or school system, often causing their curricula to suffer in comparison.
Let us be clear: it is not Jewish and Hebrew studies teachers who are the problem. They are, in most cases, desperate to succeed, feeling the burden of expectation placed upon them by Jewish history as well as leadership, parents and the wider community. But schools struggle to raise sufficient funds for training and new resources, and even when they do, there is very little evaluation or benchmarking available to help them know what works.
One solution seems simple: why not create a similar infrastructure for Jewish studies? But unlike secular studies, there is no “one size fits all” model for Hebrew and Jewish studies, as they are offered within day schools that vary in denomination, philosophy and observance. This quandary has made it increasingly clear that large, drastic changes — like those the informal education sector can provide — are necessary to “reboot” the formal Jewish educational sector to help it reclaim its status and standing.
Large, drastic changes — like those the informal education sector can provide — are necessary to “reboot” the formal Jewish educational sector.
In the work of the World Center for Jewish Education (where I am the director), we are in regular contact with hundreds of Jewish teachers across the globe. Our experience and expertise have taught us that we need a central hub — an educational start-up. Organizations like Birthright have shown us that it is possible to dramatically change education with a small, smart and creative team. Our approach is inclusivist and specialized, designed to help each school fulfill its unique vision. Because of our experience and ability to maintain continuous communication with schools, we are able to focus on identifying each school’s immediate needs and supply the necessary solutions. We help ensure that Jewish schools, wherever they are on the religious spectrum, can demonstrate that Jewish and Hebrew studies are treated with the same degree of respect and care as secular studies.
Our hub provides:
- Educational resources — Selected curricula from the best providers around the world with outstanding training and mentoring for teachers to implement them effectively
- Strategic planning for leadership teams to ensure that their school has the vision and strategy to suit the needs of their students and families in their community
- Fundraising consultancy and cost-saving initiatives to assist with both resource development and access to multi-school purchasing
- Measurement and evaluation of teaching, curricula and learning outcomes to prove impact and improve standards
- Marketing and branding to craft a strong narrative to represent each school effectively to multiple stakeholders and assist with student recruitment
Our Hub will operate as a small, focused center that examines the suitability of various programs and makes recommendations based on individual schools’ needs. We will provide funding to other organizations to develop or improve educational resources. We will also work with schools on specially-tailored programs, ensuring that Jewish studies and Hebrew teachers are equipped with the resources and support they need so every student can emerge as proud and active members of the Jewish community. This approach will require the synchronised strategic planning of educators, philanthropists, community leaders and the Israeli government.
We brought our “Hub” idea to school heads and Jewish/Hebrew Studies programs across the world and asked for their feedback. We have carefully considered the positive and constructive criticism, and our challenge will be to meet the expectations of our supporters and to demonstrate to the thoughtful critics that we are able to meet the challenges. We will continue the dialogue with both groups.
Resolving the dilemma of evolution or revolution in our approach to Jewish education in schools is a critical challenge that we believe can be navigated by a hub. The stakes could not be higher: hundreds of thousands of children study in Jewish schools around the world, and we need to show how vital this education is for the ongoing flourishing of the Jewish people. The best chance we have of creating future generations of active, literate and caring Jews is when our schools are able to generate a culture of innovation and excellence supported by stable infrastructure and sound finances. Luckily, we at WCJE have the educational vision and know-how to make it a reality, and we invite you to be our partner in this essential and exciting endeavor.
Mickey Katzburg is the director of the World Center for Jewish Education and an educational innovator with more than 20 years of experience in Israel and abroad.