There have been many articles written about the need for change in Jewish education, specifically in the synagogue setting. Many have taken this challenge seriously and have made changes in the structure and design of their programs. Not all these changes, however, have been successful. But that is not a bad thing; in fact, it is necessary. We learn as much from what is not working, as we do from what is. It is through experimentation and through the efforts of those who are courageous to take risks and embark on change that we are seeing a new, “radical” approach to school change, one that redefines not only the goals of Jewish education, but also what is looks, feels, and sounds like. This “radical” change is not confined to our schools. We are also seeing it in new synagogue programs that are emerging in response to how Jews today are expressing their Judaism.

We see this current engagement and willingness to change as part of a paradigm shift that is necessary and one that we have seen throughout our history. In Rabbi Benay Lappe’s EliTalk, she outlines the inevitable process of change and how this often leads to an “unrecognizable” state for those living through it. Lappe outlines the steps of change, which begins with a master story that serves as the source for the answers to the questions we all ask in life: Who are we? Why are we here? What is our meaning and purpose? This master story eventually “crashes,” which leads to three possible reactions: people deny the crash has happened and they strengthen their resolve to answer their questions using whatever system they are currently invested in; they completely disengage and leave the community; or they create “radical” solutions, which allow them to actively participate and find meaning in their lives.

Synagogue Setting:

In Jewish institutions today, we see this pattern alive and well. For many of our constituents, their master story has indeed crashed. They no longer find inspiration, meaning, and community in traditional synagogue life nor in the learning that is taking place in our synagogue schools. Using Lappe’s theory, we see one of three responses taking place:

  1. Boards, families, and teachers are denying that change is necessary. Instead, they are holding fast to traditional synagogue life and learning. For example, “success” in some synagogues is still measured by the number of people that attend Shabbat services and schools continue to focus on skill acquisition and Jewish content knowledge.
  2. People are voting with their feet. Membership in many synagogues is down, and this in turn, affects enrollment in the schools. Families are privately hiring clergy for life cycle events and tutors to prepare their children for bar/bat mitzvah. Many have left not only the synagogue community, but have also made the conscious choice to no longer engage in traditional Jewish ritual or learning of any kind.
  3. “Radical” models of spiritual communities and learning are emerging. These new models are unrecognizable to many as institutions of Jewish learning and living.

Lappe points out that these radical institutions of Jewish learning and living emerge while traditional structures are still in existence. We see this today. Innovative models such as Sababa Camp and Wilderness Torah no doubt are viewed by many as “unrecognizable” places of Jewish learning. However, if we look closer at their core goals and the experiences they are creating for their families and learners, it is clear that there exits a vision and educational philosophy behind all that they do. This may lead us to debate whether they are indeed radical models, but one cannot deny that they are powerful alternatives where people are finding meaning and community.

The naysayers who believe that the future of Jewish life and learning is not in the synagogue need to take a closer look. There are many changes taking place, often at the grassroots level, that are being embraced and revitalizing Jewish living and learning in the synagogue setting. Many synagogue schools are “unrecognizable” to parents who were bored in Hebrew School and whose primary focus was to make their students “more Jewish.” Whereas these schools are still housed in the traditional synagogue building, they are not limited by this. They have created flexible hours and days of learning and spaces of learning that are not restricted to the classroom or the building. Additionally, they have developed new curricula that recognizes the importance of teaching the whole child, including his/her emotional, spiritual, and social development. This is done not at the expense of skill and knowledge acquisition; in fact, quite the contrary. Creating curricula that addresses these important aspects and needs of the child enhances learning and positive feelings toward Jewish learning and living. And in these same schools, there is an understanding that traditional modes of instruction need to change in order to achieve this. As a result, we see experiential learning, project based learning, and social-emotional learning replacing traditional frontal learning and classroom management strategies.

Oh yes, change is happening. And the synagogue setting is uniquely positioned to be the place where Judaism can be “radically” changed. It offers community in its truest sense- where people of all ages gather to celebrate, mourn, learn, and ask the “big” questions of life. It is the place where living what is learned can be practiced, challenged, and changed. The question is, are you willing to make the changes necessary to engage the learners of today? Those changes may be unrecognizable to you now, but as Lappe points out, they won’t be to your grandchildren. Who’s ready for some radical change?