Jewish Education is Dead: Long Live Jewish Education

December 15, 2011 2 Comments »


Dr. Jonathan Woocher’s keynote presentation at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial, “Education is Dead: Long Live Jewish Education” was a purposeful road map for Jews of all stripes.  During yesterday’s standing room only session, Woocher went through the cracks and creaks of today’s models of education (something that hasn’t been legislated in the Reform movement since the 70′s) and laid out his ideas for modes of success in moving forward.

While I am deeply connected and committed to Jewish education from multiple angles (student, parent, son of educators, and in my role as CEO of Causil I am a consultant to various institutions, organizations and funders), I don’t always have the fortune to see the perspectives of other groups who are among our big tent.  Jewish Education is thriving in many places and dying in many places – be it educationally or financially; now is the time to rebuild for the future, while we have everyone’s attention.   Dr. Woocher put it best when he offered that in the next 5 to 10 years we will have the unique opportunity to impact education foundations that will affect generations of new students and families.

Not one to beat around the bush, Woocher, Chief Ideas Officer for JESNA, began with such comments as:

Why are you fighting assimilation?  We are assimilated, get with it!  Its all about making meaning and imparting lives… not continuity. Live meaningful, purposeful lives and I believe the end result will be continuity.

Now that you understand the situation we are in, plan for it.  It’s a busy world out there…  While the Reform “parent” finds Jewish education to also be way too expensive, their feelings of perceived value in the system is lower than those of those in the orthodox world where it is perceived as necessary.

The challenge of Jewish Education is how do we carve out space in young people’s busy lives for Jewish learning?  How do we show them its worth it?

By intertwining technology into the session with text messaging polling and funny YouTube videos, Woocher managed to “eat his own dog food.”

Technology is a powerful accelerant; it helps us be more powerful, communicate directly, and helps build our organizations into better institutions.

The future of Jewish education exists now, it’s just not yet evenly distributed or accessible.

The following slide grabbed the attention of the group (which asked participants to text in their answers):

Which of the following do you see as the most urgent in remaking Jewish Education today?

“More relevant to learners lives” was the big winner at 47%.

How do we do this?  If we are able to “put learners (consumers) at the head of all our thinking.”  In the past, education was designed and implemented for the convenience of the providers. If we can learn to empower the learners and families, make them “prosumers” – producers/consumers – we can fully engage them as creators on their own.

We should be “educating the whole person, not just the Jewish part.”  We spend most of the time as educators teaching how to do the “Jewish” thing, specifically.

Judaism is about living a noble worthy human life, not living Jewishly.

One of the best metaphors Woocher used for the possibilities laden in the future vs the past of Jewish Education was “Vaccination vs. Wellness”.

If we try to control it (education and the process) it will be destructive.  No one organization or person can do justice to what Judaism has to offer.

So, what are the new models of education that Dr. Woocher thinks will work?

Magnet programs in schools and organizations. Focus on something!  By specializing in one area, you can teach, program and market through a unique lense.

Linking camps, congregations and year-round youth activities together.

Education concierges.  Helping families navigate through the mess and make a plan/path.

Day schools as community education centers.

Create multiple points of entry.

Bring innovation in from edges.  So many amazing things are happening at the fringes; in technology, art, religious practice and more.  We need to find ways of letting these innovations affect the core.

Redefining the role of educators as guides and mentors… not front of room lecturers.

Foster relationships. Most people remember the relationships with their peers and educators, not necessarily the stuff they learned from them.


While I do not agree with every solution and point that Dr. Woocher made, I have to give him credit for this grand thesis.  His valuable experience and insight into what the Reform movement is grappling with as it rebuilds its education ecosystem will no doubt be called into play.  I am most interested to know what you, the reader, thinks of these points?  What can other groups within Judaism learn from this and what can we adapt for our own needs?


By the way… I will be tweeting more often than blogging from #URJBiennial.  You can follow me @weinberg81 with certain things reposting to @Jewneric.

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  • David Fryman

    “Why are you fighting assimilation?  We are assimilated, get with it! . . . 
    Judaism is about living a noble worthy human life, not living Jewishly.”

    That pretty much captures his thesis. Don’t bother fighting assimilation because Judaism is apparently not about living Jewishly anyway. Aside from my ideological objections, under this view, why care about Jewish education at all? 

  • Daniel Wenger

    It sounds like he presented a great model for education in general, but the Jewish aspect doesn’t resonate quite as well. As far as I can tell, there are only a few dozen full-scale Reform day schools in the country. That makes his battle focus as convincing people that formalized day school education is somehow important. You even cite the difference between this and the Orthodox view. Reform is at a totally different stage of the game in this regard. And I think that that’s got to do with Reform’s overall take on religious issues (like the asimilation quote and David F.’s comment) moreso than their approach to education.

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