What Covid Is Teaching Us About Jewish Education


Over the last few months, we’ve seen and heard how families crave and value their relationships with Jewish educators and the meaningful Jewish experiences they help to bring into their lives. For many, the shelter-in-place experience opened eyes about the role and work of educators.

This is the time of year when many families, under normal circumstances, send their smiling kids off to camp. Let the counselors have them for a month or two while parents refresh and regroup.

Of course, we know that’s not happening this summer for many people. Instead, we’re adjusting to the current normal — not the new normal. But we, as Jewish educators, can use this time to think ahead to Jewish education post-pandemic, and to envision what we want it to be. The digital platforms that helped make Jewish education possible over the last few months are not the only ways Jewish education will be delivered post-pandemic. But we’ve learned so much about what makes education effective, relevant, meaningful, even efficient, over the last few months.

First, I hope our community continues to embrace its educators. When society reopens, Jewish educators will be tasked with rebuilding much of Jewish communal life. The relationships and the connections they are maintaining with their students today will be the foundation of that growth tomorrow. Many Jewish educators will need to be re-employed, paid more and valued more. Our community must embrace this new mentality to lay a new foundation on which the infrastructure and people that enable Jewish education can thrive. Our community should empower a new generation of Jewish educators.

At the same time, this period of isolation confirmed what almost every educator already knew: Our youth can access knowledge whenever they want. One need not be a rabbi or a scholar to find all the answers. Rather, real knowledge is contained within learners. Wisdom is not in any curriculum, or source sheet, and not even in a canon or Torah. These all might supply some information, but the real wisdom is held within the hearts and minds of every learner.

Nevertheless, learners crave human beings who matter in their lives. It is within these rich relationships between educator and student that effective and positive transmission of Jewish tradition occurs.

In its simplest form, all education is based on the transmission of knowledge and skills. Educators often play the important role of selecting which pieces of knowledge to focus on, and when. Being Jewish today takes on different meanings for different people, and almost certainly is different than it was even just one generation ago. Educators are tasked with tapping into the singularity of every individual — their interests, ambitions, fears, questions — and helping that individual find their connection to Jewish life.

The new paradigm also reminds us about the vast amounts of knowledge accessible beyond the classroom. Learning can happen in the playground, in the streets and the mall, most definitely in homes, and of course online. Educators support that which is being lived by learners on a daily basis.

Technology has been shown to be remarkably effective and efficient in helping our community achieve educational goals. Most importantly, technology is a native, intuitive platform for our children. Ignoring technology or implying that it is only a distraction is to dismiss an essential tool through which our children develop relationships, engage in learning and find meaning in life. After Covid-19, online social and learning experiences will continue to be powerful tools.

We have also seen technology’s limitations. We now have more clarity about the kinds of experiences and learning that are best achieved in person. Educators will never again take face-to-face time for granted. Instead, we will be able to design in-person learning experiences in intentional ways, enabling learners to gain deeper insights and thrive.

This reality — an abundantly positive one — compels us as Jewish educators to think about “proactive possibilities.” Jewish education has the power to change minds, to change lives and to change the world. Our wisdom, values and tradition can help young people thrive and can bring deeper meaning into all parts of their lives. As more and more educators embrace this approach to Jewish education, more of our learners will understand — because they will experience — the value of Jewish learning in their lives today, in an increasingly complex world they must navigate.

David Bryfman is CEO of The Jewish Education Project. He hosts the weekly livecast, Adapting: The Future of Jewish Education