The Current Scene
A New Era?
The field of Jewish education has undergone a palable shift over the past 15 to 20 years. New programs of formal and informal education have appeared, and existing ones have been re-thought; new champions of Jewish education have emerged, as have some new funding sources. And Jewish education itself has risen in the priorities of communal leaders and individual families. Indeed, the modd among educators and lay volunteers in the field has improved considerably. Whereas in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the tone in educational circles was one of worry and even alarm, by the closing decade of the century, the outlook was one of expextation and forward momentum.
This shift in outlook has permeated the field of supplementary Jewish education as well. As compared to the intensely negative self-assessments rendered by insiders 25 to 30 years ago, interviews conducted in the fall of 2005 with educators and observers yielded upbeat and cautiously optimistic evaluations. The field of supplementary Jewish education is brimming with new ideas and curricula, a raft of new initiatives, new strategies, and dozens of schools actively engaged in a process of renovation.
What accounts for this turnaround in the field’s morale?
- With a majority of Jewish children receiving their Jewish education is supplementary settings, some Jewish leaders have made a pragmatic and others an ideological decision not to abandon a major educational system. Educators, congregational leaders, and some lay champions are determined to improve the supplementary schools.
- Even many leaders who strongly prefer day schools as the optimal form of Jewish education acknowledge that, for the foreseeable future, a considerable number of Jewish families will rely upon supplemental schools to educate their children. Despite considerable efforts to recruit even larger of non-Orthodox children to day schools, and the increased student populations enrolled in such schools, to date only a small minority of children from Reform households attend day schools, and fewer than 30 percent of Conservative households enroll their children in day schools. Under these circumstances, supplementary schools are perceived as important targets for educational reform.
- Supplementary high school programs in particular are attracting new interest. As analyses of the 1990 and 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Studies have demonstrated the positive impact of peer influences and continued exposure to Jewish education in the teen years, some communities and congregations have stepped up their efforts to retain young people in their post-bar and bat mitzvah years, especially as they are mindful of the role peer groups play during adolescence. Moreover, other considerations are also spurring interest in the high school years: some of the potential market for such schools consists of young people who attended a day school until the sixth or eighth grades and who now wish to continue their Jewish education in a supplemental, albeit sophisticated, setting. More broadly, congregations are eager to retain teenagers and their families as members—with the high school programs as an important inducement to continued membership. All of these factors have heightened interest in supplementary high school programs.
- Central agencies of Jewish education have particularly invested themselves in supplementary education. Indeed, many directors of such agencies regard themselves as the champions of supplementary schools. Because few bureaus of Jewish education (BJEs) were given capacity and resources to engage in meaningful work with day schools, they have instead focused most of their energies on certain aspects of supplementary schooling, particularly the continuing education of school directors and the training and accreditation of teachers.
- New work on synagogue revitalization has spurred fresh thinking on the place of the synagogue school in the life of the congregation. Here is how Professor Joseph Reimer of Brandies University put it: “Whereas before the last decade most observers of American Jewish life viewed the synagogue as the poor cousin in relation to the more vital Jewish federation, in recent years the synagogue has made a comeback and moved into a coveted spot. It has become ‘the holy community,’ the place where the business of ‘,making Jews’ actually takes place. Suddenly communal expectations for what synagogues can accomplish in shaping the Jewish identities of the next generation have dramatically risen.” This has encouraged adults to invest more of their energies in the improvement of congregational schools and has also led to the creation of new combinations of family—and children-centered Jewish education within the synagogue.
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