Monday, May 30, 2011

Partnership for a Day School & Informal/Supplementary Jewish Education

Having walked both sides of the proverbial fence, I find myself highly interested in the tug-of-war between Jewish day schools and Jewish informal/supplementary education (specifically religious/Hebrew school models either synagogue or community based). As an educator, I have worked in religious schools and day schools. As a parent, I have children in both.
Both day schools and informal/supplementary education models have the same end goal: to create/cultivate knowledgeable and active members of the Jewish community. The meanings and definitions of creating and cultivating, knowledgeable and active, will vary for sure. But in truth, the end result is we want our children and students to know what it means to be Jewish, to want to be Jewish, and to live a Jewish life. The path to that end goal varies with the educational model – as it should.
The Pesach Haggadah references Four Children: wise, wicked, simple, and one who doesn’t know how to ask. The very story of our exodus and the meaning of the Pesach Seder are discussed from four different perspectives as a result. This fundamental lesson is often overlooked. If we must teach our tradition at the Seder to our children at their level, in a way they can understand and accept, then our educational models should reflect that everywhere. Children (and their families) have different needs and different interests. Day schools are not for everyone and neither are supplemental schools. What has always puzzled me is why it has to be an either or proposition.
Day schools and supplementary education have different paths. Instead of forcing families to choose one, why not allow them to straddle the fence and follow both? My oldest son was in a day school. It was not a positive learning experience for him. When we put him in a public school, he was simultaneously enrolled in a synagogue based religious school to pursue a Jewish education. My family participates in both day school and religious school life. Friends and fellow educators are puzzled – what we are doing is surely redundant and unnecessary. I disagree.
It is a fact that both day schools and informal/supplementary education models are suffering right now. Both are facing problems and are at a critical point where change is both inevitable and necessary. 21st century education is here, and we need to rise to the occasion and welcome the challenge it presents to Jewish education. Judaism can be accessed in so many ways now, without ever leaving the house – we need to provide the relevancy and incentive for people to connect in the physical community and in our educational environments. People no longer have to come to a physical building or space to learn, to form a community, or access extensive knowledge. Websites abound with information about ritual and reason, tradition and text, prayers and Tanakh. There are ways to study Hebrew online – and with native Hebrew speakers for maximum efficiency and learning. Virtual communities online can provide a community connection and collaborative environment for some people. It is our task to find a way to take the abundance of offerings in the virtual world, bring them into the physical space of our schools and educational experiences, and make it all work. We have to ask ourselves what we have to offer beyond what someone can get on their own; what we can do to bring those amazing possibilities into our spaces.
As a day school educator, I am faced with a particularly strong dilemma. Parents do have other options for secular education and for religious education. Day schools are no longer “the” place for a serious Jewish education; informal and supplementary schools have become serious contenders and work hard to provide a solid educational foundation for their students. There are parents that are strongly pro-day schools and parents that are strongly pro-supplementary/informal education models. A large portion of the population is waiting to see, choosing between the offerings based on their needs and desires. Both models are doing something right, both have major strengths. Collaboration and learning between the models will help strengthen both. There is room for everyone – and we can learn from each other.
What the collaboration between day schools and informal Jewish education could look like needs exploring. More importantly – the idea needs to be considered more fully and a substantial conversation needs to take place. One place I want to begin that conversation is at NewCAJE . CAJE collapsed in the wake of the financial scandal and crisis; it was a tremendous loss. NewCAJE has begun and is not replacing CAJE, but reinventing it. CAJE was long the reigning domain of professional developing and networking for informal Jewish educators and professionals. Day school educators were never successfully integrated into the fold, instead they were a separate part of the family that was largely uninvolved. NewCAJE has the incredible opportunity to bridge the gap and bring the two worlds of Jewish education together, to start the conversation and explore the possibilities. Join NewCAJE; come to the second conference (check out the Young Professionals area), be a part of the conversation.
Last year I attended the first NewCAJE conference and Young Professionals post-conference institute. As part of the main conference, I took advantage of conference sessions. These weren’t limited to professional development but also spiritual and personal development. I was one of five or so day school educators present. A few of us offered sessions – and the attendees weren’t day school educators; they were people from all over the spectrum of Jewish learning. They learned something from us – and we learned something from them. In one evaluation, an attendee for one of my sessions said “I was surprised that a day school teacher could make something relevant to me as a religious school teacher. I came to this session without high hopes and I’m leaving with something that I can do and use.” At the post conference Young Professionals institute, a group of young professionals came together for the first time as part of this new organization. We discussed what Jewish education is right now – but more importantly what it could and should be for the future. We formed relationships with other educators and discussed the challenges we all face. I found that the problems aren’t as unique as one might suppose. We highlighted some issues we each are passionate about and began planning ways to address them. NewCAJE is just getting started; we have the opportunity to truly shape what it becomes. It’s rare that an opportunity like this come to fruition; we would benefit greatly from taking advantage of it. The power of any group is in its members. NewCAJE needs a diversity of members from the Jewish professional world; day school and informal/supplementary educators need to come together and shape an educational landscape that will be effective and enduring for all of us.

1 comment:

  1. Anna, I think you are 100% correct that we need to begin breaking down the barriers between day schools and supplementary education programs. If we keep learners and their families at the center of our attention, then it quickly becomes clear that the best way to maximize Jewish learning is to view all of the educating institutions in a community as potential assets for all families. Yes, institutions like day schools or synagogues will have primary constituencies. But, they also have the potential to impact learners and families more widely. E.g., day schools may have resources to support Hebrew language learning that students in supplementary programs could benefit from, and synagogues have active adult learners who could serve as mentors and role models for day school students. There are also many opportunities for children in day schools and in supplementary programs to do things together that will build social bonds across the institutional boundaries. What's needed is a perspective that is at once learner-centered and community-wide. This way of thinking and acting can be extended to other institutions as well - camps, JCCs, other types of Jewish organizations - and to non-institutional partners, including some outside the Jewish community. We won't change everything overnight, nor should we. But, conversations among educators across institutional lines, as you suggest, is clearly one important step in the direction of re-envisioning and redesigning our educational system.