Jewish Education Needs A Copernican Revolution

By Jonathan Woocher

Published April 21, 2006, issue of April 21, 2006.
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Today we live in a world where choice reigns, where mass customization is expected and where learners are increasingly in charge of their own learning. For Jewish education in America, confronting this reality demands nothing less than a radical Copernican-style revolution, one that places the learner — not the provider, the program or even the system — at the center of our thinking.

In today’s world, we need not just bus drivers taking passengers from stop to stop along a fixed route, as Conservative scholar Jack Wertheimer recently argued, but the Jewish equivalent of Enterprise Rent-A-Car — a movement to pick up individuals and families where they are and give them the wherewithal and guidance to take their own educational journeys.

From an educational standpoint, there is good reason to welcome a situation in which learners drive the agenda. The learning itself will be more powerful and more enduring when it responds to authentic questions, when the learner actively seeks out the answers to these questions, and when there is ample room for diverse learning styles and formats.

Of course, this is not the whole story: Education is a dialogue between student and teacher, and it is presumptuous, if not downright foolish, for learners to imagine that they know all that they need to guide their own educational journeys. Still, the balance in education, as in many other spheres, is shifting. We cannot simply feed people what we want them to know and expect them to absorb it passively. It’s bad education, and in the Internet age it just won’t work.

For Jewish education, adjusting to this new reality will be somewhat wrenching. Jewish educators and the institutions they populate are driven by an intense and admirable passion to transmit an intellectual, cultural and spiritual heritage that we rightly regard as both precious and sacred. This passion has led us to design settings, curricula and educational experiences that reflect what we believe a Jew ought to know, feel, believe and value.

But in this urgency to transmit, we have often lost sight of the larger context in which Jewish education operates and of the lives our learners are leading. With the best of intentions, we offer them what we believe they need — and primarily in the times, places and modes that work best for our institutions — rather than really listening to what they want and accommodating our teaching to the rhythms, pressures and serendipities of their lives. Examples abound.

Most supplementary schools offer pretty much the same curriculum in pretty much the same time configuration. Is this arrangement really well suited to meet the needs and desires of today’s strikingly diverse population of children and families? Do we even ask? The success of alternative models, like the Kesher Community Hebrew School After School in Cambridge, Mass., hints that we may be missing an opportunity to engage individuals who want something different than the standard fare, but have difficulty finding it.

A similar situation exists when it comes to teaching teens. In most Jewish communities, the major options for teens to continue Jewish involvement beyond bar or bat mitzvah are youth groups and formal high school programs. These are wonderful for those for whom they work.

But the significant “drop-out” rate for teens during these years of enormous potential for Jewish development — fewer than 25% remain involved by the time they graduate from high school — demonstrates that we are either not offering enough options, especially those geared to what we know today’s teens are looking for, or not doing a good enough job in making these opportunities known to those whom they are designed to serve. Again, with the best of intentions, we do much planning for teens, but not a lot with them.

Much the same goes for families with pre-school age children. Imagine if they had access to Jewish educational “concierges” who helped them locate and enjoy just what they are looking for — when and where they want it. Not only might more of these families enroll their children in Jewish early childhood education programs, they would also have ready access to resources they could bring into their homes directly, to opportunities to connect with other young Jewish parents, and to family-focused activities in the Jewish community that they might otherwise be unaware of — perhaps even to activities that do not yet exist, but which a cadre of empowered “concierges” might induce institutions to create.

To be fair, America’s Jewish community has already begun adjusting its thinking on how to deal with the new realities of diversity and choice and to help Jewish learners, current and prospective, take a more active role in shaping their own learning. The road ahead, however, is far from easy.

Institutions will be challenged even more than they are today to be more experimental and to work more collaboratively. Communities and funders will be challenged to expand the resources available in order to deliver more customized, high-quality experiences. And all of us will be challenged to find new ways to uphold values central to any Jewish education — foremost among them, the value of community itself, even as we focus more attention on the individual. In an already hyper-individualistic age, Jewish education needs to foster connections and promote the sense of mutual responsibility that is at the core of the Jewish ethos.

Happily, there are many signs that individuals continue to yearn for connections and that values are very much on the agenda of today’s educational consumers. Our task is to tap into these desires and to design responses that enable learners to become, in the current jargon, “prosumers”: co-creators of their own educational experience.

We have no choice but to take up this task. Our communal version of the Ptolemaic geocentric universe — one that places institutions and programs at the center of our thinking — simply will not endure.

Jonathan Woocher is CEO of the Jewish Education Service of North America.

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