Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Can We Disrupt Religious School?

Part I: Religious school accomplishes "everything" - and also very little

Philip Roth's Operation Shylock tracks a main character (named Philip Roth) through a long search for self in Israel. At one point, the character is kidnapped and kept in a dingy basement classroom in Jerusalem. The classroom helps him recall his religious school days, his experiences in Newark in the 1930s, and he states that "it" - this journey of his through the holy land - it all began:
...back when I'd first taken my seat in that small, ill-ventilated classroom that was the Newark original of this makeshift Jerusalem replica, during those darkening hours when I could barely bring myself to pay attention after a full day in the school where my heart was somehow always light, the public school from which I understood clearly, every day in a thousand ways, my real future was to arise. But how could anything come of going to Hebrew school? The teachers were lonely foreigners, poorly paid refugees, and the students - the best among us along with the worst - were bored, restless American kids, ten, eleven, twelve years old, resentful of being cooped up like this year after year... Hebrew school wasn't school at all but part of the deal that our parents had cut with their parents, the sop to pacify the hold generation, who wanted the grandchildren to be Jews the way that they were Jews, bound as they were to the old millennial ways - and, at the same time... who had it in their heads to be Jews in a way that no one had ever dared to be a Jew in our three-thousand-year history... Our put upon-parents were simply middlemen in the classic American squeeze, negotiating between the shtetl-born and the Newark-born... rebuking the young ones, "You must, you have to, you cannot turn your back on everything!" What a compromise! What could possibly come of these three or four hundred hours of the worst possible teaching in the worst possible atmosphere for learning? Why everything - what came of it was everything! (1993, p 312)

What a perfect description of religious school! It made no sense - not the way his secular life did - and received no resources and seemed to be understandable only as part of the arrangement his parents made with their parents for living the goldene, good life in America. Public school mattered. Religious school was just something to survive. And yet, it worked. It worked! What came of it was everything (that's Roth's emphasis): It imprinted on Roth that he, fundamentally, at his core, is a Jew. And that, in and of itself, is everything.

Repeatedly, when I interview educators about their congregational education programs, I hear something like, "We just can't get that much done. All we can hope for is some fundamental identity stuff. There isn't rigor. This isn't day school." Sometimes, their goals for their schools include fun - that is, that students should find Judaism fun. Sometimes, their goals include relevance and family engagement and practice. One congregation well captures this in their school's mission statement: "Our goal is to foster a love for Judaism: A Judaism that is relevant to daily life and a source of ethics and spiritual fulfillment." There are other goals in this statement - relevance and meaning and integration into daily life. But, the mission statement says, love is first.

These goals (love, relevance) aren't unimportant. To Roth, they're "everything." But they're also, literally, the basics. Without a sense of self-definition as a Jew (a.k.a. identity), without love, and without fun, nothing else can get done. These things are everything and what we want for our children. But what if that's all that gets done? What happens when school stops at these basics?

Part 2: Disrupting the religious school - resetting goals and expectations
Helpful work has been done recently documenting and advocating new models of congregational education. As synagogues have completed projects like Reimagine (the renewed Experiment in Congregational Education) and local Bureau of Jewish Education processes, and as the after-school/Hebrew school model proliferates and influences Jewish educational culture, schools have been redesigned. At this point in this process of educational change, we can see the religious school of the future, and it sometimes, even often, looks only a little like school. Significant change has been made.

Some of this change seems like Silicon Valley's coveted disruption. Going from meeting from 4-6 pm on Tuesdays to meeting in the summer for "camp"? Or from children meeting in classrooms to families meeting in living rooms? In a sense, this is, indeed, disruption. The shape of the program is radically different.

But two things are relevant here. The first is that only, or primarily (to be fair), the shape of the school is different. What's the same? What we teach. The profile of the teachers and facilitators. How we train and meet with the teachers.

The second is that a new market has not necessarily developed for these programs, their sponsoring synagogues not necessarily attracting new members and families through these programs, the schools not necessarily creating a new paradigm of teaching and learning. This - the creation of a new market - is the original definition of disruption, that a project identifies and serves a market that previously couldn't be served. Otherwise, it's just plain old change - and it's not necessarily as sticky, or meaningful, as disruption. Disruption changes the game. Change just repackages it.

This change that has occurred in religious school programs across North America has not been easy. It takes real courage to shift these programs that occupy so much congregational energy and that are so attached to the financial bottom line of congregations. And, I'm underestimating the value of some of the change that has happened in congregational education. In the Bay Area, for example, the communal change project in which some synagogue schools engaged (with Jewish Learning Works) resulted in many of them developing deeply Judaic, rabbinic, visions for their schools. In some cases, more students seem to be having more fun and to know more.

Perhaps some know more, but now, students are (finally) meeting our expectations, which weren't that high to begin with. We can still do better than this. Much better. Judaism itself demands that we do better, that we not just repackage religious school but fundamentally reshape it, raising our expectations of students and of ourselves.

Mordechai Kaplan, in Judaism as a Civilization, makes this call: "The only raison d'etre for Jewish education is the assumption that without it the Jew cannot possibly know what to make of his status as a Jew."

This is both a straightforward statement and an incredibly intense one. What do we make of our status as Jews? What does it mean to be human and Jewish, living in a non-Jewish state, living among non-Jews (even in the Jewish state)? This question is unresolvable and also the focus of a life, the content of an eternal curriculum, the heart of the rabbis' Talmudic debates. 

Religious school cannot just be fun. Fun is simply not that compelling - it's fine for a year or two, but cannot combat the call of the soccer field, day after day, year after year. Moreover, there is a difference, one Bay Area educator pointed out, between simcha - a deeply Jewish value - and kef - something we have on Saturday night, and the first is lasting and meaningful. And that's just one aspect of the work we could be doing.

Education scholar Ted Sizer offered "habits of mind and heart" as a framework for establishing relevant and moving learning goals for schools. Such habits are dispositions, orientations, ways of approaching the world. In Jewish language, habits of heart are middot, characteristics, the enactment of values. We have habits of mind in Jewish language as well, though they might seem less obvious. We read texts in certain ways, inventing midrash or following pardes, and we understanding history through memory, and we view the individual within the context of the collective. These are ways of thinking and they help us know not just what but how to think Jewishly.

Religious school has changed dramatically in the recent past. Perhaps it has become more effective. But it could be a game changer in Jewish life if it were disrupted, truly changed so that new markets found it relevant and so that it created a new way of teaching and learning in Jewish life. It could be disrupted if it led students through genuine human growth, through a process steeped in Jewish narrative and Jewish language and in Jewish ways of being and that facilitates the student's becoming who they will be. This calls for making choices - we cannot teach everything in habits schools - and it calls for sophisticated ideas about pedagogy and for talented educators. Can we do it? What does it look like? I'm not sure. But for religious school to mean, genuinely, everything, we need to try. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Social Network as an Educating Space

In Israel with the Riverway Project, on one of the many bus rides that often constitute a guided Israel experience, one participant and another began talking about their Jewish pasts. Having been raised by parents with deep Jewish connections but little interest in organized religion, Dena was fascinated by Carin’s seeming comfort with liturgy and Jewish tradition. In turn, Carin was interested in Dena’s experience outside of synagogues and in her grandparents’ leftist/ intellectual orientation that Dena associated strongly with her Jewish roots. Their conversation began with Dena’s simple question of Carin, “How do you know so much?” As each continually asked questions, their varied Jewish experiences - Carin's day school education and her family’s involvements in different synagogues, Dena's family seders and Lower East Side roots - provided resources for each other and an opportunity to consider different kinds of Jewish lives. 

It's been demonstrated that "who you knew affects how you Jew," that social networks encourage Jewish engagement. The more Jewish communities in one's background, the more Jewish choices one makes as an adult. We mimic our Jewish friends, who make their own Jewish choices. Our very knowledge of Jewish choices comes from Jewish friends. Out of Jewish communities, we create long-term relationships with Jews, which facilitate our Jewish education, Jewish life partners, Jewish involvement.

Social networks also, themselves, are classrooms. Walking into a peer's home for Shabbat lunch, that home becomes the text that explains Jewish living, makes it come alive. The experience of Shabbat lunch affirms, explains, and models. We can have a mezuzzah on our doors, and ritual objects on our bookshelves. We can display that book that we bought in Israel; we can open Shabbat lunch with blessings. In this secular life, this is how our peers do it. We learn as we live in these cases of true situated learning, the life experiences of the members and then of the network itself becoming texts that we, network members, study and explore.

This kind of experimentation within the context of community is most important for newcomers. Newbies engage from the sidelines. In prayer, for example, we follow the words to the songs with our eyes but don't sing. We take a glass of kiddush wine but don't help pass it out, or tap our feet to the tune but don't clap. This is how we learn Jewish community, by watching and, when we're comfortable, jumping in, one ritual at a time. We practice "legitimate peripheral participation," the description that community of practice scholars Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger give to this phenomenon. We, legitimately, dip toes in the water, interested and engaged, not yet learned, confident, or at home, but slowly absorbing the practice of Judaism.

This is how we learn the details of Jewish living and it's good stuff, for sure. But ultimately, the most intense power of the network is not actually in all of this ritual learning. The confidence to live Jewishly, the resolutions of our struggles with Judaism, the validation and motivation that some of us need to engage, these come more from the safety, stimulation, and support of the group, from the experiences that members create together. Strong social networks become supportive learning communities. They talk through the network's living - in this case, of their Jewish lives. We have a meal after Shabbat services at synagogue and work on the issues that the rabbi raised in the sermon. We talk through events in Israel. We look for a Jewish spiritual community that's right for us, thinking out loud with peers about what that means. We work on volunteer boards together, critiquing our organizations and mapping out what they need.

On the Riverway Project's Israel trip, the group became the mediator of participants' Jewish growth. As these twenty- and thirty-something liberal (Reform) Jews had complex experiences at the Kotel, and walked around Jewish history for the first time, and grappled with Israel's borders and boundaries, their once merely social interactions gave way to trust and even reliance as they thought out loud together. A genuine interest to learn from each other seemed to grow, as did an expectation among participants that they would help each other build their distinct and mutual ideas. They would help each other build their respective Jewishness. They debriefed formally, sitting in circles after visiting varied sites, and they chatted informally, as Dena and Carin did on the bus. They began to take on each other's language, relating in later conversations ideas from their peers that stuck with them. The group members became each other’s teachers, their relationships and the ways that the prompted and supported each other the most authentic part of their experience. One group member explained:
It was not the sights we saw, nor ... the Israelis conducting their daily lives in and around these sights, though both were fascinating, but rather how the group of people that I was traveling with experienced these same moments. In our evening sessions of study and reflection, I was struck continually by the thought that Israel was merely the backdrop to our own deepening connection with each other and our own sense of evolving Judaism.
In all of these ways, social networks offer an educating space, practice from which to learn to be Jewish, and validation and support, a group with whom to reflect on and process their Jewish choices.

Social networks develop organically, but they also benefit from cultivation. That is, the same as a curriculum, social networks are a tool that practitioners can craft deliberately in order to facilitate education. So:
  • Facilitating a class? Don't spend your time only - or even primarily - on the "content." Lecture about Maimonides, or teach about Shabbat, but spend an equal amount of time facilitating reflection among students, asking them to share their opinions about the material with each other, helping them to learn from peers about who they are as Jews as well as from each other about Judaism.
  • And, build relationships. Make sure students know each other's names, and details about each other. When they speak in class and refer to each other's points, help them use each other's names and to speak to each other, not only to the teacher. Facilitate a get to know you conversation. Help students share personally.
  • Create opportunities for informal, organic conversation, outside of the classroom. Facilitate a museum trip, or a movie and meal afterward, or a Shabbat experience. Help students have serendipitous conversation.
  • Raise topics for conversation. Bring out the tensions in students' identities and experiences. Don't let conversation be easy; don't gloss over what you think is really going on for students.
Every class can become a network, the network strengthening what happens in class. Every network can be educational, with content and facilitation from a caretaker, with tight relationships that allow deep trust among members. Through conversation and reflection with each other, on the text that is their collective experience, students - network members - transition into new and more strongly Jewish identities for themselves.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Collective Impact in Jewish Life

I spoke with a great teen today, Jessie, for a BBYO project I get to evaluate. As she described what Judaism means to her, she emerged as uniquely articulate about her Jewishness. Her answers were precise, complex. She described programs that she had planned for BBYO. They were creative and educational, not unlike programs I had planned as a Jewish educator, but when I was a decade older. Jessie shared that she went to Jewish summer camp. Of course she did, I thought. Of course she did. I can't know that her camp experience elevated and prepared her for her BBYO experience, but I would not be surprised if it is the combination of these experiences, the synergy of each playing off the other, that helps Jessie's ideas to be so mature.

When I was in the planning department of a large-city Jewish Federation, I was involved in supporting a number of remarkable investments in Jewish education, working on congregational education, and overnight camping, and day school subsidies, and the engagement of Jewish teens, and more. Each project was creative, valued by stakeholders, and possibly even effective. Still, we approached each area discretely, as a disparate activity, even while one learner or one family could have been involved in many of them. It was up to the learner, the family, to negotiate the varied approaches that different organizations took, to find Jewish activities, to translate the ways that each organization considers Jewish life and living. But this might have been, might still be, too much for uninitiated (or even initiated) Jewish learners. To begin to build bridges among our projects, to make this easier for potential participants. we began an educational havurah, a community of practice where we traded ideas, discussed goals, and tried to create a common language. It wasn't easy to bring together the organizations' executives, and some sent others in their stead. Still, I knew we had something special when one Executive Director - one who sent her assistant director to the meetings - shared with me that she had been taking time to read the meeting summaries and that she appreciated them. Something sticky, something interesting, was happening when we got together. Something valuable. But when I left Federation, the project left with me. At the time, non-profit practitioners weren't rewarded for this kind of work. We were fitting it in, in between the effort we made toward the successes that counted in annual reports. It was easy to let this relationship-building and community-building exercise go.

Jewish education is quite the loosely coupled system. (I love this graphic of loosely coupled systems.) Jewish educational organizations are not connected immediately or directly, and we cannot facilitate change in the system by legislating it from a supervising organization. But educational organizations are still unified into a system: by common resources (Torah) and practices, by common clients who move from institution to institution, by common practitioners who also move among settings. Learners and practitioners bring expectations and ideas from one place to the next. They talk with each other, sharing ideas. Moreover, the same future awaits us all: If North American Jewish life grows, so does each of our programs. If it fails, so does each of our programs.

Still, the institutions themselves are not coordinated. It is perhaps not news to suggest that most of the time, actors in the Jewish educational space do not behave as though we have one fate or one body of work. Too often, instead, we are competitive for participants, funds, and mindshare, as though any of these things is limited, as though participants and learners win - gain something - by participating in only one of our organizations.

A midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 4:6), a Biblical commentary, relates:
Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai taught: This may be compared to the case of men on a ship, one of whom took a drill and began boring a hole beneath his seat. His fellow travelers said to him, "What are you doing?" He replied to them, "What does that matter to you, am I not boring under my own place?" They said, "Because the water will come up and flood the ship for us all!"
We are, literally, in the same boat. We have an opportunity to rise together when we share participant lists, piggyback on each other's projects, or create a series of opportunities that are married together. I recently received my son's first PJ Library book, related to Tu B'Shevat. I sat reading it to my son (he chewed on it, but I'm pretty sure he was listening raptly) and realized that we should totally celebrate Tu B'Shevat as a family - we should go hiking, or create a family seder, and one day go on a tour of our local recycling plant. I got excited about the holiday. I wasn't before. What if there had been with the book an invitation to a JCC event, or a sample seder for doing at-home, or a reminder of our local minyan's Tu B'Shevat dinner? There are reasons that this idea is complicated - a book is less threatening than an invitation to an event, and we want to lower barriers for people, not raise them - but we have let excuses like this get in the way of real collaboration for too long.

Philanthropic advisors have developed a language that frames this idea of the communal whole being greater than the sum of its organizational parts. Collective impact work is happening in some places in Jewish educational life (namely, the Jim Joseph Foundation's funder collaborative supporting Jewish teens) but from my perspective, we can't talk about it enough. In the spaces in between organizations and practitioners lies the synergy that we need to help Jews be maximally engaged in Jewish life, moving seamlessly from one opportunity to another, the collective opportunities constituting a robust, not an episodic, Jewish life.

Through empirical research, conditions have been identified under which collective impact initiatives thrive. The infrastructure that's needed - a backbone organization, shared measurements, mutually reinforcing activities - might be a long-term agenda for Jewish education, requiring trust, relationships, and even infrastructure that cannot be legislated or built overnight. In the short-term, we can learn from the ideas that ground collective impact: that it will take an interconnected web of organizations to create real change, that the work of engaging Jews in Jewish life belongs not to one organization but to many.

We can also, in the short-term, start to talk about collective impact and its implications for Jewish organizational life, getting used to the idea of collaboration, breaking down barriers. Imagine a project, a conversation among community agency and program leaders, that explores any of the following:
  • What is your operating definition of Jewish education? How does that definition differ across community agencies and programs?
  • What is the total Jewish educational experience you hope individuals and families have in your community? How can that experience be seamless?
  • What are the potential connections among Jewish educational opportunities that could exist in your community?
  • How do learners move from opportunity to opportunity? Do they have enough knowledge to move fluidly? Does each opportunity launch them into new opportunities, into more?
  • Can the curricula of different organizations complement other curricula? How?
  • What kinds of guidance can you offer learners as they try to negotiate the Jewish educational landscape in your community? What might a concierge offer learners and families? (See this program in the Bay Area and this program in New Jersey.)
  • What would the process of building a collective impact project in your community look like? What would your goals be? What stakeholders would be involved?
  • What are your shared measures of success?
Collective impact can begin to be constructed. Organizational leaders can start talking, even generally and without seeming deliverables, in order to develop trust, a common language, and a sense of mutual purpose. We can create psychic rewards for such collaboration, even actual rewards, and even if the immediate results are not obvious.

We often bring institutional loyalties into our work and tend to see strategies as organizationally bound. The real potential of collective impact likely will come in the ways that we co-sponsor, and partner, and contribute our best resources toward joint projects. And it will come when we begin to ask different kinds of questions, when we see the unit of change, our focus or our project, as the learner and not the organization, and all players around the table as being present to serve the learner together. It will come as we together begin to take collective responsibility not for our programs but for a robust Jewish experience for all Jews.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

What Do We Say No To?

New York Magazine has recently begun issuing its print magazine every other week, moving from 42 to 26 annual issues. Press coverage suggests that the magazine was losing ground by shrinking its product. A closer look reveals some complexity, that the magazine's digital platform has taken off and that resources once devoted to the print issue are now to be used to expand the magazine's on-line efforts. In other words, this seeming retrenchment is in order for potential expansion: the magazine's core mission - the delivery of a certain kind of content - will remain strong and even grow, and the format through which the magazine achieves its mission will change slightly. In this choice, the magazine is maximizing its resources in order to deliver its results. The magazine's leadership is saying no, focusing strategy, in order to accomplish more.

Years ago, at a non-profit organization for which I worked, a volunteer leader asked me to create a list of the organization's core activities. He was expecting one piece of paper. I needed four. We had six different approaches to creating social change. We offered as many types of service to our clients as we could, fulfilling a sense of mission to our clients, occasionally following funders' interests, sometimes pursuing Jewish values. We were practicing the "can't say no" syndrome, rarely saying no to funders and also not saying no to ourselves. This resulted in diffuse organizational strategy, resources spread thinly across many functions instead of concentrated in a few areas. We rarely worked deeply anywhere and, consequently, we rarely made real change anywhere.

Strategy should be tight, focused. The concept of strategy comes originally from the military (the Greek word strategos means "to think like a general") where if resources are not directly focused in a complementary way on a target, and that target is not addressed successfully, lives are lost. Sir Winston Churchill allegedly said, "However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." Strategy is more than how we do things; it suggests interlocking means of execution that yield maximum results. Strategy needs to move the needle. Pieces of the strategy that are distracting - even if they feel right and important - need to go.

That's hard. There are likely disappointed readers of New York Magazine who will miss the more frequent (non-virtual) read. But what if New York Magazine had decided instead to expand its on-line presence while maintaining its weekly edition? It might have stretched its resources, not able to maintain one while expanding the other. And then, it might have disappeared not partially but completely, and then it would have really disappointed its readers. The magazine's commitment to its ultimate goal was bigger than its leadership's desire to avoid some one-time difficult conversations with readers, some reader disappointment, and perhaps even some reader abandonment. Strategy is about the larger picture; sometimes, it is about saying no in the day-to-day. Our commitment to our vision has to be bigger than the emotions that arise when we feel we are not pursuing our every possible opportunity. To get more done we have to learn to say no, uncomfortable though that might feel.

To act more strategically, to say yes to the right things and no to others, we might ask ourselves:

  • What do we want to be doing in the world? What change are we pursuing?
  • What are the most promising activities that might get us to this change?
  • What activities don't fit into this puzzle? What activities seem attractive but are less productive?
  • And, finally, can we say no? What does it take?

Previously published by WexnerLEADS; cross-posted by the Wexner Foundation.