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Moreover, JEDLAB harnesses the power of the Internet to bring together Jewish educators who would never have otherwise had the opportunity to discuss and share ideas. Lustgarten had worked at a Jewish day school in Miami, but recently left to pursue freelance educational consulting. “I love it, but it’s very lonely,” she said. “Now in JEDLAB, I have hundreds of people in my office at all times that I can reach out to for conversation. I feel I’m accompanied on this journey of making things better.”
At the same time, JEDLAB founders recognize that online exchange is no substitute for face-to-face conversation.Hoffman said that the group hasn’t gone deep enough yet. “Right now, the inquiry is lame. They’re regurgitating. We’re a baby; we’re learning to talk,” he said. Still, he is optimistic about JEDLAB’s potential. “It’s a baby, but it has a hunger that has momentum.” But JEDLAB is more than just online chatter. The group has been taking its ideas offline and into the classroom, the synagogue and the community at large. At one New York gathering this past June, two early childhood education specialists got into a heated debate, Gordon said. One was a proponent of Montessori-style education, which emphasizes self-directed learning, and the other of Reggio Emilia, which stresses collaborative projects to encourage group learning. A third JEDLAB member finally suggested creating a lab school, with one room for each approach, to test the merits of both systems. The educators stopped arguing and agreed that it was a great plan. “That freedom of thought is outstanding,” said Gordon.
Wiener was inspired by JEDLAB discussions as she refined plans for the Summer Sandbox, a three-day event in June in New Jersey where Jewish educators gathered to develop lessons and programs for the coming year. A number of innovations came out of the event, including lesson plans on how to relate Torah law to other types of legal systems and on teaching students about tzedakah by encouraging them to research charities — an exercise that also works to develop financial literacy. Despite the excitement surrounding JEDLAB, it is hardly the first attempt to revitalize the world of Jewish education. The past two decades have seen some major — and expensive — attempts to rejuvenate the field. When it was founded in 1997, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education sought to double the number of non-Orthodox Jewish children in day schools. But the numbers have barely changed, and in fact, some studies show a drop. In a 2011 Forward article, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a founder of PEJE, admitted, “I was guilty of optimism.”
So, what makes JEDLAB different from its forebears? Unlike some previous attempts to fix Jewish education that were often fueled by a few key investors, JEDLAB is strictly a bottom-up endeavor. “We don’t want the elite controlling the conversation,” said Hoffman. “JEDLAB is an attempt to use a model that flattens the playing field.”
And unlike other grassroots attempts, JEDLAB is a product of social media. “This is the first time in history when we actually have knowledge that is shared rather than isolated and contained,” said Hoffman. This, Wiener believes, is what makes it a truly unique innovation in the world of Jewish education. “Because of social media and things like Twitter and Facebook and this ‘hacker generation,’ things are very democratic and all these hierarchies are breaking down,” she said. “JEDLAB is all about democratic creation, and all these voices coming together.”
Emily Shire is a writer based in New York City, covering popular culture, sex and gender, and religion. Her work can be found at emilyshire.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @eshire.