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Guest Post: Jonathan Woocher questions relevance of Jewish education system

Inventing the Jewish Future by Dr. Jonathan Woocher

"The future is already here.  It’s just not evenly distributed." William Gibson
"The best way to predict the future is to invent it." — Alan Kay

In a couple of weeks, some 400 participants at the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly will spend several hours diving into and debating the future of Jewish learning and life.  However, the Jewish Futures Conference isn’t really about the future – it’s about our present and how we are going to respond to the opportunities and challenges the present offers.

The question that lies at the heart of the Jewish Futures Conference is whether Jewish education is ready for our present reality, much less the future that will soon be upon us.  I fear that the answer is “no.”  But, I also believe that it is within our power to change that, and that this conference can be one important piece in that process of adaptation and innovation.

Jewish learning and life today, and almost surely tomorrow, take place against the backdrop of a community and a society far more diverse and driven by personal choice than we ever imagined possible.  Digital technology gives each of us access to a wealth of information and entertainment literally in the palms of our hands. Organizations and institutions can no longer command or expect our loyalty and support unless they can deliver something of tangible value for our lives.  We have the capacity to self-organize, and we do so in myriads of ways that make most of us true cosmopolitans – members of multiple communities with global perspectives.

All of these changes and many more make it evident that we cannot continue to offer our youth and adults the Jewish education of the past and expect it to work.  Don’t get me wrong.  Jewish education has not “been a failure,” as it’s sometimes depicted.  The Jewish education system that we built in the 20th century has had notable successes, and many of the institutions that represent its backbone – day schools, summer camps, even synagogues – are vital assets that will surely play a continuing important role in the future.  But, it is also true that Jewish education as we know it today falls short of what we need in several crucial respects.  The symptoms of Jewish education’s ills are well-known:  the large numbers of young people who are never engaged or who drop out as soon as they pass Bar or Bat Mitzvah; the perception among many that what they have learned is irrelevant and even erroneous; the “drop off” syndrome that sends a clear message about the (un)importance of Jewish education, regardless of what parents say.

More important than these symptoms, however, are the underlying causes, because these provide the key to changing the current reality.  At the top of the list is the difficulty that Jewish education has had adjusting to our world in which learners and families expect to be active choosers and even co-creators of their learning experiences.  Jewish education is still “provider-driven.”  The voices of learners and parents are too little heard, perhaps because of an assumption that they really don’t want serious learning.  But, this gives our learners and families too little credit and turns too much Jewish education into a kind of “force feeding.”  

Also problematic is the tacit, but widespread, identification of Jewish education’s goal as one of forestalling assimilation, of making Jews “more Jewish.” Stronger Jewish identity will certainly be an outcome of good Jewish education, but it will be embraced as learners discover that Jewish tradition and Jewish community can help them live richer, fuller, more purposeful lives.  Too often today our curricula focus on a narrow range of skills and rituals without connecting these to the larger issues that animate genuine concern and conversation and the larger world in which we comfortably live.

Finally, Jewish education today remains siloed and turf-ridden.  Even where outright competition is avoided, there is still little communication and coordination across institutions and domains.  Innovations and learnings from one arena – say, day school or camp – are not readily picked up in others.  Students and families, instead of being actively assisted in weaving multiple experiences in diverse settings into a continuous fabric of Jewish learning, are left to make their own way through what must often seem like a maze of institutions and programs as they seek the most appropriate experiences out of which to construct a meaningful and satisfying Jewish journey.

The good news is that this picture is changing.  Slowly but surely, we are pulling Jewish education into the 21st century.  The future is already here; we are inventing it.  Increasingly, we see programs and settings that are breaking new ground, experimenting with new modes of learning, reaching new populations, and connecting Jewish learning to a broad range of Jewish and human experiences.  What is needed now is to pursue these pathways self-consciously and systematically, to ensure that today’s “cutting edge” becomes tomorrow’s norm.  The Jewish Futures Conference will showcase some of the new voices shaping today’s/tomorrow’s Jewish learning and community.  It will allow us to begin to articulate the principles that underlie the new Jewish learning – learning that is holistic, that enables learners to be co-creators of their educational experiences, that is offered synergistically across multiple settings, that is both content-rich and life-relevant.

Some things, happily, don’t change.  People still seek meaning in their lives; they still want to be connected to others and to purposes beyond themselves; they still want to feel in control of their lives, able to affect what matters to them.  Our task today is create Jewish education that allows learners to draw on the riches of the Jewish tradition to pursue the unchanging in a rapidly changing world.  It’s an exciting challenge, one that many are taking up with vigor and creativity.  I invite you to join us in inventing the Jewish future.

Dr. Jonathan Woocher is Chief Ideas Officer of JESNA, and director of its Lippman Kanfer Institute: An Action Oriented Think Tank for Innovation in Jewish Learning and Engagement, one of the sponsors of the Jewish Futures Conference.

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