Following a national search, the Jewish Education Project (formerly the Board of Education of Greater New York) last week named David Bryfman its next CEO, succeeding Robert Sherman, who will retire in 2019. Bryfman, who earned his Ph.D. degree in education and Jewish studies at New York University, has served as JEP’s chief innovation officer, focusing on “bringing innovative strategies and creative thinking to Jewish education.” An alum of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, he is a veteran of the formal and informal Jewish education field, with experience in Israel, Australia and North America. JEP, a 108-year-old nonprofit agency, serves as a national resource for educators, clergy and lay leaders. The Jewish Week interviewed Bryfman by email. This is an edited transcript.
Q: We frequently hear laments about the problems facing Jewish educators — too little money, too few competent teachers, too little interest on the part of students. What do you see as the main challenge of Jewish education as you start your new job?
A: These perceptions, commonly expressed, regrettably have been the experience of too many Jewish individuals. But I don’t think we can address these issues without looking at the big picture: At no point in history have there ever been more Jews participating in a greater variety of Jewish learning opportunities. The strength of Judaism and the Jewish people is the ongoing ability to adapt and thrive in the changing world around us. That’s particularly true of Jewish education, which is the transmission of Jewish values and traditions that have endured through thousands of years of changes.
Is Jewish education, especially at the elementary school and high school level, a lost cause?
Education is never a lost cause; it is at the heart of the Jewish experience. Day in and day out, thousands of amazing educators and institutions are committing themselves to innovation in service of the Jewish people. In New York and across North America, I walk into schools, camps, youth groups, early childhood centers and see thousands of educators not only engaging young people and their families in dynamic Jewish learning but designing experiences where young Jews can shape their own learning based on their passions.
What is the biggest mistake that Jewish schools and Jewish educators are making?
Not shouting their successes loud enough from the rooftops.
The teaching about Israel has become increasingly toxic in recent years. The old Israel-making-the-desert-bloom approach does not work in the internet generation, where many Jews have a less-emotional attachment to the Jewish state. What is the most effective way to teach about Israel?
Good education has always been about presenting learners with the broadest range of complex issues and allowing them to reach their own conclusions — Israel education should be no exception. Israel education is not at its core about Israel. Israel education at its best is the study of Israel in order to enhance the personal and Jewish identity of its learners. Israel education, like all education, ought to always be developmentally appropriate. Often, we sell our students short; even our youngest learners can be exposed to complicated issues, and for sure our older students should confront the most difficult and challenging of all issues related to Israel before being exposed to them for the first time in their college years.
Are Jewish schools quick enough to embrace teaching about STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects?
One of the central tasks of The Jewish Education Project is to ensure that our schools continue to remain attractive and valuable to the broadest cross-section of the Jewish community. Investment in STEM pedagogy (or STEAM, as many call it, to incorporate arts education) is one of the most compelling assets in the educational marketplace today. Many of our schools have embraced STEAM as part of their core curriculum. Many day schools feel pressure to be competitive in their STEAM offerings as part of a broader push for dual-curricular excellence, and we’re excited to be coaching them and offering workshops on how best to deliver on this.
Older generations of religious school students grew up with textbooks, and the occasional movie. How important is the latest technology, online learning, the internet, etc., in Jewish schools?
If you walk into any progressive educational institution today — a religious school, a day school or other setting — it wouldn’t resemble the type of education described here. Technology has always been just a tool to achieve learning outcomes. But the most exciting and dynamic classrooms aren’t just outfitted with new technologies like smartboards, iPads, and video editing tools; the mode of delivery has evolved to favor interactive discussions, games, music, fun and student-driven learning.
You’ve written that “the most essential element of Jewish education today is not our curriculum, not our educators, not even our Torah.” That sounds heretical. What did you mean, and how does that translate into concrete advice for Jewish schools?
There would be no transmission of Judaism today without Torah, curriculum or educators. Full stop. It’s the next sentence of that article you’ve cited that is even more critical, and more accurately reflects my educational philosophy: “The element that matters first and foremost in Jewish education today are our learners. If Jewish educators are unable to translate our tradition to the issues that really matter in people’s lives today, they will fail.” There’s nothing heretical about acknowledging that the world has changed and that we need to adapt the practice of education to meet the needs of Jewish children, teens and families.