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Focus on Issues Turnover at Educational Groups


With the longtime leaders of the Jewish Educational Service of North America and the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education stepping down Jan. 1, their successors are poised to usher in an era of better cooperation in Jewish education.

During the past quarter-century, the field of Jewish education has made tremendous strides. There has been a flourishing of day schools — particularly non-Orthodox ones — with the number of children attending those schools doubling since 1982 to some 200,000.

Major philanthropists are paying unprecedented interest to Jewish education. In the past year alone, organizations such as the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation have made eight-figure pledges to fund Jewish learning. Others such as the Avi Chai Foundation are dedicated solely to Jewish education.

But as Jeffrey Lasday takes over for Eliot Spack at CAJE, Donald Sylvan replaces Jonathan Woocher at JESNA and Woocher becomes JESNA’s chief ideas officer and director of its new Lipman-Kanfer Institute, they face a Jewish educational landscape with many challenges.

The need for professionals has outgrown the supply, with the boom in day schools creating a dearth of talented and qualified teachers and administrators, Lasday said. More and more early childhood initiatives have cropped up, but the teachers who staff them are underpaid and without benefits, he said. And Jewish educators are still struggling with how to reach out to the next generation.

Sylvan says there are two other sweeping issues: The current educational model is too focused on institutions, using day schools and congregational schools as its building blocks. That alienates many Jews who are not attracted to synagogues and typical Jewish institutions.

“We need to meet them where they are,” Sylvan said, describing a model that focuses on first identifying people’s needs, then filling them.

The experts must still figure out how better to decide which “great ideas” to improve Jewish education work, which don’t and under what circumstances, Sylvan said.

JESNA and CAJE take very different approaches to the same issue.

JESNA works mainly as a consultant group. Its Berman Center for Research and Evaluation studies educational models, schools and programs; its Learning and Consultation Center takes those evaluations and tries to help put the best practices into action; and the new Lipman-Kanfer Institute is a think tank designed to convene the best and brightest minds in the Jewish world to figure out how to take the next innovative steps in Jewish education.

CAJE, on the other hand, is more a service organization for the teachers ultimately asked to apply JESNA’s suggestions. Though it publishes several periodicals and works on professional training, the organization is best known for the annual conferences it has held since it formed in 1976 as a grassroots organization of progressive-minded teachers.

The conferences draw about 1,500 teachers a year, but CAJE is geared primarily toward helping the teachers with the least support — those in congregational schools and early childhood learning centers.

JESNA is ivory tower; CAJE is blue collar. But as the institutions change hands, both are talking about how they can work together in the future, a significant sign that a paradigm change is afoot in the Jewish education world.

In the past, relationships between Jewish organizations often were cool. In the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed that educational institutions tried to be all things to all people, spread themselves thin and hurt their effectiveness.

In recent years, JESNA in particular has taken a more holistic look at Jewish education, viewing itself not as the cure-all but as one among several organizations aiming at the same goal, according to Sylvan.

It’s an attitude that “is a growing realization for everyone,” Lasday said.

Some of the lack of coordination had to do with “turf issues” and some with “personal relationships,” Lasday said. But forming positive personal relationship should not be a problem for Sylvan and Lasday, who took much different routes to their new positions.

Sylvan was an outsider to the Jewish professional world. A noted political scientist at Ohio University, where he was a professor on the verge of tenure, he was interviewed often on CNN for his expertise in Middle East politics.

He was a JESNA board member when he inadvertently found himself applying for the job as the organization’s CEO, which he has held for the past year.

Lasday worked his way up through the ranks in Jewish education, serving for the past nine years as executive vice president of the Central Agency for Jewish Education in St. Louis.

But it’s where the two intersect that is significant.

They have known each other and worked together for years. When Lasday was founder and director of the Commission on Jewish Education in Columbus, Ohio, Sylvan was a lay leader there. Lasday once took one of Sylvan’s daughters on an organized trip to Israel.

Their collaboration could hinge on that personal foundation, as they already have scheduled monthly lunch meetings.

Here’s how collaboration could work, as they describe it:

Both Lasday and Sylvan point to Jack Wertheimer’s 2005 study for the Avi Chai Foundation, titled “Linking the Silos,” which found that individual Jewish education experiences at the community level, such as afterschool programs, day schools or camps, don’t work well in isolation.

JESNA’s Lipman-Kanfer Institute has been eyeing ways to tackle that problem. One potential solution, according to Woocher, is through a model called “concierge Judaism” that plays off trends in American consumerism, where Americans pick and choose what they want and are specific about their needs.

This behavior can be applied to Jewish education if Jews can sit down with a concierge who helps them choose which formal education models, such as day schools or congregational schools, or informal models, such as camps or youth groups, would work best for them as entry points into Jewish learning.

The way Lasday sees it, it’s the teachers on the ground that would have to implement this idea.

“CAJE could take those ideas and road-test them,” he said.

JESNA’s Berman Center could then consult with CAJE teachers about what worked and what didn’t, and refine and disseminate the initiatives that are successful.

It would then be up to CAJE to work with seminaries and Jewish colleges across the country to help train the next generation of Jewish teachers on how to work best with those ideas.

It’s a synergy, they say, that depends on the involvement of other Jewish education organizations.

“We need to cooperate,” Sylvan said. “There are many challenges to Jewish education in the 21st century, and neither CAJE nor JESNA can possibly address those challenges by themselves.”

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