New Report Urges Jewish Institutions to Start Connecting Dots for Continuity

Bus drivers. That’s what American Jewry needs to pull itself together, according to a team of prominent Jewish scholars. The image of a bus driver guiding Jewish families through the complex maze of choices for Jewish learning and social experiences is being floated as part of a new report, “Linking the Silos: How to Accelerate the Momentum in Jewish Education Today,” published by the Avi Chai Foundation in December.

Operating in a “survivalist” mode, Jewish institutions have spent the past several decades raising funds and creating new educational programs to address what was determined to be a crisis in Jewish continuity, Jack Wertheimer, the author of the report, writes in the executive summary.

The first public discourse on “Linking the Silos,” which seeks to move beyond the crisis and reappraise the current moment in education, took place at a conference here of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, a group that focuses on day schools.

“The report tries to contextualize Jewish education within the larger American Jewish community and with what’s happening with family life,” according to Wertheimer, provost and professor of American Jewish history at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

“We need to think about linkages and connections,” Wertheimer told JTA following the March 19 panel discussion. “Day schools and other Jewish institutions don’t operate in a vacuum. One of the key challenges is how to involve day schools with other Jewish institutions.”

Those other Jewish institutions include supplemental religious school programs often connected with synagogues, Jewish summer camps, Jewish youth groups, trips to Israel, Jewish pre-schools and adult-education programs.

Wertheimer headed a team of prominent Jewish researchers, who looked at various aspects of these institutions.

The report’s name, “Linking the Silos,” is borrowed from the information technology industry, describing how institutions operate in isolation, similar to free-standing silos.

Jewish institutions operate independently and are understandably focused on their own mission, Wertheimer said. “What we’re trying to stress is to get institutions to recognize that they’re part of something larger.”

“It may be pie in the sky that a system can be created, but certainly there is a need for a network of Jewish institutions that interact with each other,” he said.

Wertheimer not only wants to break down those barriers, he wants to see the community establish “bus drivers.” These drivers, he said, would connect Jewish preschool families with day schools and congregations; and establish links between day schools, congregational schools and summer camps, so that the experiences build on each other.

This extends to adult education, as well, Wertheimer said. His study finds parents today are integrally involved with their children’s education but often find themselves knowing less than their kids when it comes to Jewish learning.

The report analyzes data from prior surveys, including the 2000-2001

National Jewish Population Study. In addition, researchers conducted interviews with educators, parents and grandparents in 10 communities around the country.

Thirty years ago, Jewish education was the lowest of the low on a set of priorities for American Jewish institutions and donors, said Barry Shrage, executive director of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

“There is a zeitgeist change,” he said, noting the flocking of Jewish philanthropists to the day school cause and the record turnout at the PEJE assembly, which drew 1,000 day-school educators and supporters to the three-day conference.

Shrage is considered among the country’s leading voices for innovative Jewish educational programming. He has shepherded through major initiatives for adult education programs and Jewish day schools, including the Peerless Education program, which is overseeing a $45 million grant for Jewish day schools in the Boston area.

Thirty years ago, the question being asked at federations was, “What’s the innovation that will save American Jewry?” he said.

“The answer is that there is no one institution. Most American Jews experience more than one or two of these and the impact is huge,” he said.

Now that it’s conventional wisdom that different experiences contribute to Jewish identity, Shrage agrees that more needs to be done to connect the dots.

The report comes at a time when many communities are shining a bright light at Jewish day schools, showing them to be among the most effective institutions to provide Jewish students with a lifelong connection to Jewish practice and values.

But Jonathan Woocher, president and CEO of JESNA, the federation system’s organization focused on Jewish education, questioned whether there is too much emphasis on day schools in the chain of Jewish institutions.

He said that as much as he believes in day schools, “we know there’s a large portion of the Jewish population for whom today, day schools are not a realistic option.

“Many are not showing up in any formal Jewish education,” said Woocher, who moderated the PEJE panel.

“The challenge is to empower synagogues, which are the front line in engaging many Jewish families, to do that job more effectively and be more attractive and welcoming. It means investing in synagogue education on a communal level in ways we’ve not often done in the past,” Woocher said.

Some observers cite an underlying tension between day school and religious school leaders, who see their organizations competing for the same fixed group of Jewish children.

But Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of PEJE, said, “There are enough children out there for both the synagogues and the day schools to do just fine. Collectively, we are missing the connection with a lot of these kids.”

Ilene Sussman, executive director of Day School Advocacy Forum, founded about 14 months ago to promote the common interests among Boston-area day schools, agreed.

“Our research on synagogues is a guiding force on how to create a win-win synergistic relationship between shul and school,” she said.

Day school fills the school week, she said, but at some point, “there’s an end to the day school for the family. That’s where congregation is important.”

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