Proposal looks at alternatives to day school, Hebrew school

Founder Manette Mayberg speaks with one of the 100 educators at the Innovators Retreat, sponsored by the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge.
Photo provided

BOSTON — Ruchel Green and Jeff Kiderman sat attentively, silently taking notes as about a dozen fellow Jewish educators and communal professionals methodically took apart a prescription for Jewish day schools the pair had just spoken about in the most glowing of terms.

It sounds like “reinventing the wheel,” said one woman.

Another person was suspicious of Green and Kiderman’s focus on content-rich programming. Yet another worried about competing with synagogue-run Hebrew schools. Someone else noted the community of Israelis in Tenafly, N.J., many of whom don’t send their kids to day school at all.

After spending 10 months as designers in the HaKaveret program of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), Green and Kiderman did not appear fazed by the exercise. As a matter of fact, they said in interviews afterward, they were ready for the feedback — positive or negative — and encouraged it.

“Throughout this process, we’ve actually internally as a group had experiences like this before,” said Kiderman, executive director of the Affordable Jewish Education Project in New York. “There’s only so much that we can talk about until someone actually tries” to fix day school education.

Kiderman and Green, a teacher and technology specialist at the Silver Spring Learning Center, partnered on JDS for All, an idea born out of HaKaveret to provide entry points into the Jewish day school system for families who choose to not send their children to full-time Jewish educational programs. They presented their vision at the JEIC’s annual Innovators Retreat, held two weeks ago at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, telling attendees that for as little as $3,000 per year, families should be able to send their children to after-school activities at day schools for six to eight hours each week.

HaKaveret is a joint venture of the Mayberg Foundation, the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, and Arnee R. and Walter A. Winshall. (Mayberg Foundation trustees Louis and Manette Mayberg, who also founded the JEIC, are members of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes the Washington Jewish Week.)

“There are two choices: Jewish day school or nothing,” Green and Kiderman noted in a report pointing out that just 22 percent of the more than 1 million Jewish school-age students in the United States attends a Jewish day school. “And nothing is clearly winning.”

“In reality, Jewish day schools are about much more than Jewish learning,” Kiderman said in a presentation to almost 100 attendees before the smaller group session offering feedback, “and it’s a pretty expensive package at that.”

But cost is only part of the issue, he explained later. JDS for All’s value proposition is in providing all the accoutrements of day schools — a social environment, connection to Jewish tradition and sources, love of Israel and intellectual engagement — on a more frequent basis than Hebrew schools and with a less-intimidating time commitment than day schools. The payoff for schools, meanwhile, would be in the form of added income and use of their buildings, as well as the potential of converting program participants into full-time students in the future.

“We know there are children out there who want to be in Jewish education,” said Green. “But if it’s for academic or financial reasons, they’re” not attending day schools.

The pair have not ventured beyond the planning stage. And to a certain extent, that’s the point of the retreat, said Rabbi Shmuel Feld, founding director of the JEIC.

“We are demonstrating that the present design of Jewish education has become untenable,” said Feld, who lives in Silver Spring. The solution lies in a process of “positive experimentation” that will test a host of ideas. Some will work. Some will not.

“I know 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb,” said the rabbi, paraphrasing a quote attributed to the famous inventor, Thomas Edison. “There’s a methodology of stuff that we know works. … So what we’re doing now is the best that we know, but when we know better, we should do better.”

Among the other ideas showcased at the event was a proposal by Sharon Freundel, director of Jewish life at Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital, and Amy Meltzer, a kindergarten teacher and director of family engagement at Lander Grinspoon Academy in Northampton, Mass. Their Encounters with G-d program calls for getting day school teachers to become more comfortable with their own spirituality and exploring ways to impart spirituality to their students.

For Manette Mayberg, whether the problems are spiritual, physical, financial or philosophical, the entire day school movement is at a crossroads. In an opening speech, she charged the conference with being creative in charting a path forward.

“The Jewish wisdom in this room will provide the creativity and innovative response to our education challenges,” she said. “It remains my belief that the first hurdle to jump in this race is to establish for ourselves an independence of thinking about how we educate Jewishly that is founded on Jewish ideals.”

Between sessions, Feld glanced at the dozens of thought leaders from across the United States who had gathered for the conference.

“The diversity of thought here,” he said, “is incredible.”

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