It all began at 5 a.m. one day in February 2013, in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Va. That’s when Ken Gordon and Yechiel Hoffman realized that the time was ripe for a grassroots overhaul of Jewish education.
The two were guests at the North American Jewish Day School Conference, an annual event that brings together Jewish day school administrators and teachers across denominations and regions. Gordon, a social media and content strategist at the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, and Hoffman, the director of youth engagement at Temple Beth Am, a conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, began talking about their frustrations with the Jewish establishment. In particular, they chatted about its inability to innovate beyond what Hoffman called “crappy conferences with experts in the room talking at you.”
“We were really able to articulate a hunger for something else. That sense we wanted to do something was born in that lobby,” said Gordon. And with that conversation, the seeds of JEDLAB were planted.
JEDLAB is a Facebook group made up of more than 1,300 teachers, rabbis, administrators, parents and concerned citizens eager to transform Jewish education. Though you may not have heard of it yet, its membership is growing every day. JEDLAB participants have begun organizing small in-person meetings and pilot projects throughout the country to brainstorm about the future of day schools, Hebrew schools and more. The group’s inception comes at a dire time for Jewish education: Many non-Orthodox day schools have stagnant and declining enrollment, and Hebrew schools have largely failed to engage Jewish youth beyond their bar and bat mitzvahs.
The group’s mission was deeply influenced by Frank Moss’s “The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices,” a 2011 book about the MIT Media Lab. The book recounts how MIT researchers worked across disciplines — such as engineering, business, visual arts and sociology — to collaborate and create new inventions, like the Amazon Kindle and child-safe airbags. Inspired by the story, Hoffman and Gordon, along with Tikvah Wiener, a fellow Jewish educator with close to two decades of experience, decided to create a Jewish media lab for educators and others to explore and pioneer lessons and projects.
Although JEDLAB has no physical lab space, it seeks to emulate the MIT Media Lab. As stated on the Facebook group’s page, its values include “creative freedom” to explore all areas of interest. “Anti-disciplinary work” is also key — “Just because you aren’t a biology major, doesn’t mean you can’t tackle a biology problem,” said Wiener. Another guiding principle is “hard fun” — “learners don’t mind activities that are [difficult] as long as the activities connect deeply with their interests and passions,” said Hoffman. There’s also “serendipity by design,” or taking advantage of the resources around you in the moment; “a focus on demonstration or iteration,” or, as the group says, “demo or die” — the underlying principle that you can’t improve a project until you try it out; “master/apprentice relationships,” or looking beyond titles to have teachers and students learn from each other; “big dreaming”; and “democratic creation,” stressing that every voice is equal.
Utilizing these guiding principles, JEDLAB has started tackling some of the most challenging topics facing Jewish education, though in a rather anarchic way. Popular discussion questions range from the logistical, such as how to manage the cost of Jewish day schools and how to integrate Jewish history into general history lessons, to the philosophical, such as how to accurately measure Jewish engagement and get more parents more involved in the learnDiscussions evolve and take interesting turns on JEDLAB. One recent conversation on Hebrew school’s negative reputation turned into a philosophical discussion on whether a family’s influence on a child’s Jewish education trumps schooling. “In-home learning that is experimental seems best. [F]amily around the shabbas [sic] table, singing, learning, eating, being,” wrote one JEDLAB member.
Another disagreed: “In-home learning is best … when the parents actually know something an[d] are interested in practicing. What about when they don’t? It’s all so nice to live in the ideal world, I have yet to teach in one.”
The exchange above is typical of JEDLAB conversations, which are often frank. The online space, unaffiliated with any Jewish organization, frees educators to speak their mind in the way they can’t at other traditional institutions. “[On JEDLAB], I can say something controversial, and I’m not getting kicked out,” said JEDLAB member Valerie Lustgarten. “People aren’t afraid to say what they’re going to say.”