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The PEJE conference, the DIY take on day schools and Woocher speaks out

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Marketing Jewish day schools: The Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, an organization that raises money and provides consulting services for Jewish day schools, held its annual conference this week, drawing some 700 day school principals, directors and development officers to the Hilton in downtown Baltimore.

Sad to say, I could make it to Charm City only for the final day of the three-day affair, but I was able to sit in on a fascinating plenary about marketing Jewish day schools that offered universal lessons for any Jewish nonprofit.

Marketing guru Liz Schrayer moderated a discussion among Dan Cohen, who runs Full Court Press Communications; Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp; and Jackie Herskovitz of Teak Media Communications, which specializes in nonprofit marketing. Between them, Fingerman and Cohen led the marketing campaigns for Campbell’s soup, Wheaties and Cheerios, so there was plenty of sound advice to go around from folks who aren’t necessarily selling their wares to day schools.

Fingerman made a point that you will see echoed in the next two posts. His suggestion to day schools was that they avoid the pitfall of trying to be too many things to too many people. A successful brand defines itself very clearly, he said. In the case of Campbell’s, it’s soup. His advice to the individual day school: “Don’t be afraid to define yourself.”

In terms of getting out the message behind the brand, Cohen suggested that each school take advantage of its hundreds of messengers. And he didn’t just mean the students; he also meant the people who come into contact with those students.

The panel also suggested utilizing social media to get the word out — for example, Facebook and Twitter — but added that not every tool will work for every school. The trick is figuring out which tool will best capture the school’s market. Cohen referred to one day school that started a radio station to broadcast school-related news across a one-mile radius for 45 minutes every day — during pickup time, so the school can deliver its message to parents as they are sitting in their cars waiting for their children.

The key, Fingerman said, is recognizing that the school’s students also operate in the broader world, and the better a school prepares its students, the better the message the school is sending out. The implied message: A school can market itself in any number of creative ways, but if the product that it is selling does not stand up to the competition, ultimately, the messaging will fail.

To that point, the schools need to do a better job of looking collectively at the day school brand and the day school product, Fingerman said. He cited the dairy industry’s “Got Milk” campaign. Dozens of individual dairy producers could spend all of their time fighting over market share, trying to edge out one another over milk consumers, he said. But the dairy industry realized that if it could increase the number of people drinking milk in general, all dairy farms would benefit. Day schools should look at a similar model, as have the Jewish camps, Fingerman said.

The day school meets the DIY generation: I had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion at the conference among the two founders of Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian independent minyan and yeshiva in New York, and one of the founders of the DC Minyan, an independent minyan in Washington.

The discussion, involving Rabbi Elie Kaunfer and Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Mechon Hadar and Beth Tritter of the DC Minyan, focused on something of a touchy subject within the day school world — whether day schools are falling short in terms of satisfying the needs of a Jewish population that is becoming more and more of a DIY (Do it Yourself) population by the day.

To be sure, at least in theory, all three speakers are proponents of Jewish day schools. All of them personally attended one, and all have either enrolled or plan to enroll their own children. But as they enter their mid-30s, they also expressed serious reservations about day schools

The main question, they said, was value. Are the day schools providing value for the $20,000 to $30,000 or more that they will be asked to pay?

Cost, of course, is a major issue — as Tritter put it: Choosing day school may mean not being able to afford something else. And, Kaunfer said, "Another way to ask the question: ‘Is day school too expensive?’ is: ‘Are you going to have a third kid?’" 

All three expressed concern that the Jewish world is putting to much emphasis on day schools as the most successful vehicle for building Jewish identity, arguing that the real value relates to the quality of the education, both religious and secular, that their children are receiving.

Kaunfer said that parents who are seriously considering day school often have the perception that the day school is falling short — especially when it comes to teaching the Hebrew language. (If true, that is a scary proposition for day schools, especially as free Hebrew charter schools crop up across the country.)

In addition, the three panelists noted, day schools will not necessarily meet all of a given family’s specific needs. And that is a hard pill to swallow for three people who helped create independent minyanim, where they and the other members have been able to craft their own way to pray, to connect with God, and to learn about religion.

“We will probably send our daughter to a school where she will not be able to put on tefillin and where she will not be able to pray as an egalitarian Jew,” Tucker said. “But,” he added, referring to a part of the Talmud, “we will compromise because I want her to learn Gemara.”

Perhaps, Tucker suggested, day schools should consider downsizing. Instead of trying to become the biggest school around with the most students and the most offerings, each could specialize around a specific set of parents and families with common needs, and each could take a smaller piece of the pie.

Woocher agrees: Perhaps discontent with the mainstream is to be expected from highly motivated self-starters who took it upon themselves to create Jewish minyanim for themselves. But interestingly, this week, Jonathan Woocher, JESNA’s chief ideas officer and director of its  Lippman Kanfer Institute, expressed many of the same sentiments as Tritter, Kaunfer and Tucker.

Woocher, writing in an op-ed piece for The Fundermentalist and JTA in the lead-up to the Jewish Futures Conference that JESNA and several other organizations are holding at the federation system’s General Assembly next week, openly questioned whether day schools — and all Jewish educational projects — are meeting the needs of today’s Jews.

“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,” Woocher wrote. “I fear that the answer is ‘no.’”

His argument: The Jewish community has become incredibly diverse, so it is unrealistic to expect modalities of education — and educational content itself — to work.

As he writes:

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 been depicted. The Jewish education system of 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 never become engaged or who drop out as soon as they become bar or bat mitzvah; the perception among many day school graduates 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 in adjusting to a 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 or to the larger world in which we comfortably live.

Check out the full article.

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