Jewish education: Reconfiguring the model


I’d like to commend Manette Mayberg for her op-ed piece on the state of Jewish Education (“Is Jewish education Jewish? WJW,  Aug. 29). Not only does Mayberg offer astute insight into issues surrounding day school education, but her willingness to speak out in this manner shows a certain courage.

There is much at stake in the world of Jewish education. It pervades Jewish communal concern, absorbs boatloads of money and is the venue of career opportunities for numerous professionals and a crucial source of membership for most non-Orthodox synagogues. I would imagine that Mayberg has struck a rather sensitive nerve within the Jewish establishment.

Having spent 30 years in Jewish communal service, including deep involvement with Jewish education, I have been aware for some time of the glitches in the system. Jewish professional and volunteer leaders have been wringing their hands for decades, bemoaning issues of intermarriage, assimilation and disaffection that seem to plague the American Jewish community, and Jewish education, particularly day school education, has always been touted as the silver bullet that would rescue a besieged American Jewry. Yet the issues remain.

Unfortunately, Mayberg’s article is short on solutions — assuming there are solutions. At the same time, I would suggest that the conundrum of Jewish education runs even deeper than Mayberg has revealed. What we really should be questioning is the entire enterprise of formal, classroom education as the main vehicle for transmitting a vibrant Jewish life to our youth. Surely, formal Jewish learning has always been a significant feature of Jewish life. But Judaism is not an academic exercise. Judaism is, first-and-foremost, a religious civilization. It is part of a ubiquitous human desire to understand life as significant and meaningful in a transcendent way and a set of beliefs and practices that enable the individual and the community to live out that transcendent meaning and significance. Judaism is about being in a covenant relationship — a partnership — with the Divine and about Torah which provides a blueprint for sanctifying life as part of that covenant relationship.

Little of that takes place in a classroom; it takes place in Jewish life. I have been aware for years — no, decades — that some of the most knowledgeable and committed members of our community are not necessarily those who have experienced day school education. It is crystal clear to me that our Jewish youth movements, our Jewish camps and our Israel and other travel experiences are the most successful programs for engaging young people in Jewish life in a profound, meaningful and enduring way. And why should we be surprised? These are not classroom exercises. These are exciting, life-altering Jewish experiences.

So I would go well beyond Mayberg’s suggestion. I would not spend more boatloads of time and money rethinking the model of Jewish day school education. Rather, I would commit ourselves to rethinking the entire model of Jewish education, directing fewer resources to formal education and more resources to informal Jewish life experiences. I would make sure that every child has a Jewish youth group experience and/or a Jewish camping experience. I would make sure every Jewish high school student can spend a semester in Israel and every college student can spend a year there. We should be encouraging and expanding programs like Avodah, which engages Jewish youth in meaningful year-long Jewish social action endeavors.

Serious amounts of energy and money are funneled to our formal educational programs, not only the tens of thousands spent on each student in day schools, but also the tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands that are poured into synagogue-based classroom education. I am convinced that more of that energy and money should go to informal Jewish life experiences. Living a life of Torah will, in the long run, have greater impact than being able to identify chapter and verse on a multiple-choice quiz.

Richard Lederman is the former director of public policy and social action for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. He is currently an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Montgomery College and teaches in a number of adult learning venues in the community.

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