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