USCJ Strategic Plan: Part 3b

Improve Conservative Jewish education

Whether it’s USCJ or some other Conservative organization, the problems with the Conservative movement’s education programs are central issues for the health of the movement. Simply put, the vast majority of children who are growing up in the Conservative movement are not being given the opportunities to gain the knowledge needed to become full participants (let alone leaders) in their own communities. For a movement whose purpose includes keeping Hebrew as the language of prayer, not placing children on a solid path to knowing the full liturgy and its meaning is a failure. The strategic plan rightly says that USCJ needs to get the movement’s various educational organizations working more closely together, but punts on what their goals should be except to say there should be a “blue-ribbon panel” to figure it out. Perhaps training children to have the basic skills needed to be the next generation of full participants in Jewish prayer might be a good starting goal.

When asked why this isn’t currently happening, a very common answer I hear is that day schools do a great job (and many do), and so we just need to figure out how to get more of the children in the Conservative movement to attend them. However, the day school attendance numbers are barely budging, and they aren’t at a level to sustain the movement. As of 2008-9, Solomon Schecter day schools in the US enrolled 13,223 students and all non-Orthodox day schools enrolled 38,572 students (Tables 2 & 4). In 2006-7, Conservative supplementary schools enrolled 55,915 students (making up most of the 80,237 enrolled in non-Orthodox and non-Reform supplementary schools: Table 3). Even in Metro NY, with many day school options, 8,500 children were in Conservative supplementary programs vs 560 in Solomon Schechter day schools.

This leaves the movement in a situation where most of the Conservative movement’s education-focused money and intellectual energies are going towards optimizing the education for a small fraction of the movement’s children. Given that other educational options have been starved of resources, it is no wonder that over 1/3 of young Jew leaders attended day school (Table 7). I’ve lost track of the number of intelligent and passionate leaders of synagogue Hebrew schools and other synagogue leaders who have told me that, if I want a serious Jewish education for my children, day schools, not their own schools, are the only option. As a parent, my choices are to abandon my excellent public school system and pay over $20K per year for each of my children so that they can receive 15-20 hours per week of Jewish education in a day school (with the day school taking over my children’s secular education also), or to pay less than $2K per year for each of my children to receive 3-6 hours a week of Jewish education in a supplemental school (some which assume that children are coming from homes without any Jewish practice). This stark choice is not ok.

There are a growing number of voices encouraging secular Hebrew-language charter schools with separate religious education. Even then, how many children would attend such charter schools?

If the goal is to give as many children as possible the best education options as possible, we need significant innovation in supplementary Jewish education. Sadly, we can’t count on the support of USCJ leaders in this effort right now. Whether or not the Hebrew charter school model is a good idea, it disturbs me that the head of the Solomon Schecter Day School Association (which is part of USCJ and has overlapping staff) thinks ”it would be demoralizing, counterproductive, and against the best interests of existing institutions” to have Solomon Schecter expertise and teachers become involved in afterschool religious education paired with Hebrew charter schools. While I’ve heard that Schecter day schools do an excellent job, it’s worth reminding their leaders that a 25% drop in enrollment in a single decade (Table 2) might also be demoralizing to teachers and against the best interests of existing institutions. Solomon Schecter schools could be trying to find ways to educate more children, gain additional revenue, and spread the salaries of high quality teachers across more families.

USCJ can also look outside the movement to bring useful resources to its communities. For example, the TaL AM Hebrew language curricula are generally well regarded, but they only sell their resources to schools with teachers who have gone through their educator training program and pay a non-trivial licensing fee. Why can’t USCJ negotiate a price that lets synagogues buy in to this program for their supplemental programs? Why can’t they get some USCJ education consults certified to train others so that synagogues don’t need to ship teachers to one of the few Tal AM led workshops? Why can’t USCJ work with TaL AM to adapt the program for children who study for 6-8h/week in supplementary schools or with a combination of supplemental schools and tutors? I don’t know if TaL AM specifically would make a good collaborator, but this is an example of how USCJ could leverage its modest staffing and budget to benefit the majority of its families who aren’t in day schools.

More broadly, many of us are trying to reimagine the possibilities for supplementary education. We want a middle option between day school and a few squeezed hours of supplemental school. For example, there are efforts like Kesher and Edah, which are trying to merge the aftercare that working parents already require, with high quality Jewish education. As far as I know, these efforts are getting minimal, if any, support from national Conservative movement organizations.

In places that don’t have enough kids for day school or aftercare models, many parents who want more Jewish education for their kids combine supplementary school with additional tutoring or replace it with tutoring. This seems to happen outside formal education programs. Knowledgeable parents develop their own curricula and find their own tutors, but not every committed parent has the knowledge base to develop a curriculum for their kids. Something as simple and low cost as a tutoring curriculum wiki would be a huge help to a lot of families and could easily fit in a USCJ programmatic portfolio. Facilitating those efforts through synagogues (curriculum selection, pairings of students with tutors, etc) also makes those synagogues relevant to more people.

More bluntly, if large Conservative institutions like USCJ, are trying to be relevant in the lives of Jews, why aren’t they part of these efforts? When I’ve spoken with Conservative movement staff about their programs for young children, I invariably hear about new programs that they are developing themselves, and piloting in one or two congregations in the New York or Los Angeles metropolitan areas, with no resources to offer my family or my congregation unless we’ve been chosen as one of the pilot congregations. What prevents USCJ from focusing its limited resources on documenting good practices so that every new attempt isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel? Why can’t they simply publicize and disseminate details about programs that work?

I’m a parent in my early 30’s. I grew up in a Conservative synagogue and I’ve been a dues paying member of Conservative synagogues since my early 20’s. I’ve davened with at least 8 independent minyanim. I have never been paid for work in the Jewish community. I spent a couple of years on the board of directors of one synagogue where I had many opportunities to observe the competencies of USCJ. I think the Conservative movement would benefit greatly from an organization that connects our communities to resources that help them improve. It would be great if USCJ could be that organization. I figure it’s worth a bit of my time to prod them in that direction. You can reach me at: improve dot USCJ at gmail dot com

13 Responses to “USCJ Strategic Plan: Part 3b”

  1. The Conservative movement should simply try like heck to start “turning Friday night into Shabbat” where every “experienced” family commits itself to not only have a Friday night Shabbat dinner in most traditional manner possible but also on a regular basis start inviting less Jwishly inclined families over for Friday night dinners as well. If all the Conservative families in the US made this their practice then the movement might be able to start to grow again.
    Remember the line “more than Jews keep Shabbat, the Shabbat keeps the Jews”. Today in the States most Jews don’t keep Shabbat and they are usually the ones who are “out” or “on their way” of the Jewish community. But in those communities where they keep Shabbat- you can see they are being kept as Jews.
    The Conservative movement should go back to keeping basics- and Shabbat is one of the top ten in the Ten Commandments- in fact it is the only ritual. you can email me back if you want to at daveneil55@yahoo.com kol tuv


    dave neil · March 2nd, 2011 at 11:07 am
  2. I think a key, and often neglected, area that Conservative Judaism needs to work on is post-religious school/adult education. The USCJ could pull together some excellent Torah learning resources for ALL levels, beginning parsha study through advanced gemarrah. Online resources would also be great so that you can access this education even if you don’t live in the Northeast corridor.


    Shoshie · March 2nd, 2011 at 11:12 am
  3. @Shoshie, do you mean like this:
    www.ajula.edu/Content/ContentUnit.asp?CID=187&u=6277&t=0
    web.mac.com/aaaron12/Aaron_Alexander/Welcome.html
    If you wanted to find them, all you would need to do is go to www.conservativejudaism.org/ and tab to “opportunities for adult learning” -> “Ziegler School Online Learning”
    Isn’t that a great job advertising available resources?

    They might not be precisely for you, but they are a pretty solid start. I’d love to see some teacher-guided online learning sponsored by some organization in the Conservative movement. There is also a huge need for simple wiki-style pages where people can upload their own lessons and teaching.

    @dave, Without denying the importance of Shabbat, I’ve known more than enough people who observed Shabbat in some form and not much else and didn’t gain the skills to be an actively participating adult Jew. Nothing is ever quite that simple.


    improveUSCJ · March 2nd, 2011 at 2:53 pm
  4. Hah, silly me, I was looking at USCJ.org. Which has a few resources for Jewish learning, but not much. The page you linked to was much better, but I still think that there’s a lot more to be done.


    Shoshie · March 2nd, 2011 at 4:11 pm
  5. I need to get in touch with someone at the Mahar Coalition. Please help me.


    Jew Guevara · March 2nd, 2011 at 4:16 pm
  6. JG, go to the New Voices blog and check out the recent post about the Mahar Coalition.


    David A.M. Wilensky · March 2nd, 2011 at 4:33 pm
  7. @Jew Guevara,
    The UMCP statement lists a name with a corresponding email address: sites.google.com/site/umdkoach/team-announcements/universityofmaryland-collegeparkofficialstatementtouscj
    Many posts at the following site also have full names – some where the emails are probably easy to locate: uscj4tomorrow.blogspot.com/2011/02/your-united-synagogues-strategic-plan.html
    One person also contacted me directly. If you email me (email at the bottom of each post), I can pass your address along to that person.


    improveUSCJ · March 2nd, 2011 at 5:32 pm
  8. One of the things that strikes me as counterproductive in metropolitan areas with many synagogues (and many USCJ synagogues, though the same goes for all denominations) is that the child’s options for where to get schooling are tightly linked for the parents preferences in prayer services. Why is that good for kids?

    Seems that educational resources would be better spent in combining forces to have varieties of supplemental hebrew schools that meet different needs. (and given the success of community day schools, I would also suggest that these schools be non-denominational).


    MS · March 3rd, 2011 at 12:05 am
  9. MS writes:
    the child’s options for where to get schooling are tightly linked for the parents preferences in prayer services. Why is that good for kids?

    Or sometimes it works the other way: The parents’ (and therefore the child’s) options for prayer services are tightly linked to their preferences for their child’s schooling. Why is that good for anyone?

    Seems that educational resources would be better spent in combining forces to have varieties of supplemental hebrew schools that meet different needs. (and given the success of community day schools, I would also suggest that these schools be non-denominational).

    Hear, hear.


    BZ · March 3rd, 2011 at 7:22 am
  10. TaL Am charges for the instructional materials. In addition, there is a fee for training teachers and their supervisors with the goal of improving the level of instruction and implementation of the curriculum. There is no additional license fee for the use of TaL AM.
    We would be happy to work cooperatively with someone from USCJ to adapt the program to the supplementary school setting. In the past we have made changes and special adaptation to TaL AM based on requests from schools. Please be in touch with us at talam@talam.org

    Bivracha,
    Tova Shimon
    Executive Director
    תל עם:תוכנית לימודים עברית ומורשת בשפה מאחדת ובקולות מיוחדים
    TaL AM: Shaping the Jewish Identity of our Children in a Unifying Language and in Unique Voices


    Tova Shimon · March 3rd, 2011 at 12:09 pm
  11. I agree that there are many benefits to community supplemental schools or at least collaborative or shared leadership. That said, even nearby synagogues are separate because they have different priorities that should be reflected in how they educate their children. When you have 3 to 10h per week of education, deciding how much time is to devote to language vs prayer vs history vs modern Israel, etc is not a trivial issue.

    I’ll also note that many synagogues see their schools not just as a core function of a healthy Jewish community, but as a way to bring children into a community. Davening, Shabbat ,and holidays in the same building with the same children and familiar adult faces can help blur the line between education and practice of Jewish life. This is lost in a community supplemental school. It’s also lost with kids who go to day school, but that doesn’t stop synagogues from supporting day schools. There’s a general need for more good ideas on how to keep children connected to their family’s community while they’re being educated elsewhere.


    improveUSCJ · March 3rd, 2011 at 12:41 pm
  12. Tova Shimon, Thank you for the more detailed information regarding TaL AM. From my understanding, there is no license fee, but schools cannot directly buy the resources unless teachers and supervisors (some or all of them?) have received the TaL AM training for each grade level’s material. This creates a large time and money cost for small scale start-up programs that might want to use the materials.

    It would be great if USCJ seriously worked out ways to get materials, like yours, into the hands of more qualified teachers and schools, but I don’t have much more power than the writing on this site to make that happen.


    improveUSCJ · March 3rd, 2011 at 3:28 pm
  13. @improveUSCJ: well, maybe we could at least let them know that TalAm has reached out to them, and it’s the least they could do to say “howdy?”


    KRG · March 3rd, 2011 at 4:28 pm

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