The Jewish Education Project recently issued a troubling report: In the 14 years from 2006 to 2020, total enrollment in North American Jewish supplementary schools dropped by a whopping 45%, and 761 Jewish supplementary schools (roughly 25% of all supplementary schools) closed. This is so, even as the number of Jews in North America increased by 43% during the same period.
The much maligned and struggling Jewish supplementary schools — the traditional Talmud Torah or Hebrew school model that students love to hate ― have been the primary place where non-Orthodox Jewish children were taught Hebrew and Jewish rituals, Jewish history and about Israel. Whether one, two or three days a week, the supplementary school was where most Jewish children who attend a Jewish school are enrolled.
But much has changed. New choices are available for those seeking Jewish education. Independent Jewish religious programs (rather than synagogue-affiliated schools), online communities and new Jewish centers that open the exploration of Judaism on a more cultural and social basis are attracting a growing number of students. And some drop out or simply never enroll.
The JEP report encouraged educators to focus on new “design principles” for supplementary education, highlighting cultural identity, family life and diversity, and redefining the role of teacher and learner. JEP also encouraged the Jewish philanthropic world to embrace the importance of supplementary schools, where the largest number of non-Orthodox Jewish children get their primary form of Jewish education.
One way to strengthen supplementary school programs and attract more students is to make sure they have well-trained educators who can engage, motivate and excite students. That’s a fact known for decades. But there aren’t enough teachers.
And that’s where the recently announced initiative of JCC Association of North America, Jewish Federations of North America and the Union for Reform Judaism — currently called Project 412 — could help. The joint project, supported by several prominent foundations, plans to train hundreds of new early childhood Jewish educators in the coming years. The spillover effect for supplementary schools could be significant.
Project 412’s plans are exciting. The organizers anticipate a three-year pilot program in 14 communities across the country that will recruit, train and certify 30 educators in each community — for 420 new early childhood Jewish educators — to help address the national shortage of quality early childhood educators in Jewish schools.
JCC and Reform movements operate some 475 early childhood centers that serve 65,000 young children and their families, with tens of thousands of children around the country reportedly on waiting lists because of the shortage of qualified, trained educators.
Through Project 412’s program, the anticipated influx of new early childhood Jewish educators will help sustain and grow healthy Jewish communities by infusing heightened Jewish education, programming and culture in our communities.
We understand that early childhood education and supplementary school education face different challenges. But if the teacher development approach works at the early childhood level perhaps something similar could be done for supplementary and religious school education at the next age level. That could be a real game changer. ■