Over Shabbat Natalie (my wife) and I got into a long conversation with good friends who are active in the world of Jewish philanthropy and education. The conversation turned to Natalie’s work at the iCenter on the iChallenge incubator for innovative ideas in Jewish education on Chicago. Among the ideas she talked about were: not abandoning, but rather rethinking, supplementary education; extending camp into the school year and building a year-round camp approach to Jewish education; developing games and other educational frameworks different from traditional classroom experiences; and many others.

Natalie has specific examples of synagogues, camps, and independent entities in Chicago and around the country that are trying these and other new approaches. All of them are characterized by many of the things the iCenter includes in its Aleph-Bet of Israel Education, which are clearly applicable more broadly to Jewish education in general: most importantly that it is learner-centered, immersive, integrated, and experiential. the Aleph-Bet is likely to become a big thing in the next year or so: it strikes a chord, and lays out in one place many of the principles that more creative educators have been employing for a long time.

Philosophically, this approach to experiential education is not an innovation at all. It is chiefly a return to the ideas of John Dewey, whose work was eclipsed in the last fifty years by approaches that focused more on schools and curriculum. But creative, innovative educators have known and employed Dewey’s ideas for a long time, and it seems that Dewey’s stock has gone up as institutions have shown their limitations. Simply put, when you make Jewish life more about the survival of Jewish institutions than about the flourishing of Jewish life, your institutions will become irrelevant.

So now, instead of the synagogue school that meets after a long day in regular school, creative Jewish educators are thinking about play-oriented approaches to education. Principles from camp can be brought into Hebrew school (and day school, for that matter): playing games, making cheers, using arts and crafts, and ultimately changing the very setting and environment in which Jewish education takes place. Camp can actually become a center we build around, with summer camp not a stand-alone experience, but the linchpin in a year-round approach to Jewish learning that also involves smaller doses of camp.

As we talked about all this, an analog came to mind, which also came to be in the days of Dewey: Scouting. Read the previous paragraph and think about how Scouting employs all these elements. Camp is the central organizing principle for Scouting, and troop meetings employ all the elements we’re talking about here. Regular camp experiences, learning-by-doing, learner-centered approaches and attractive reward systems for learning (think merit badges): Baden-Powell figured all this out at precisely the same time Dewey was writing.

Both Dewey and Baden-Powell were responding to massive changes in their world. Scouting, like Dewey’s progressive education, was a response to an industrialized, urbanized world where education had become oriented around mechanical metaphors: schools, when children went to them, would take the raw materials (students), run them through a value-adding process, and produce outputs. This left too many children behind. So they both proposed something very different: starting with the learner at the center, preparing the student to respond well in a changing world. (Louis Menand has written about this extensively in his work on pragmatism, though I don’t know if he includes Scouting in this. He should.)

I have my own critiques of Scouting, principally that, like too many Jewish institutions, became too focused on institutional self-preservation and not on living out its educational mission. (Yes, Scouting’s approach to dealing with homosexuality and God is much more about institutional interests–namely the Church of Latter-Day Saints–than its educational mission.) But, like most successful movements, it is rooted in key enduring ideas and values. While the experience of most Jewish educators does not overlap with Scouting (because of the socio-economic segregation that describes so much of our lives today), those of us involved in trying to renew Jewish education would be wise to look at its model and learn from it.

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As readers of my blog know, one of the dead horses I tend to beat is the line that “more than anything else, what defines American Jews is that we go to college.” Depending on which survey you believe somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of American Jews go to college—a larger number than celebrate Passover seders or light candles on Shabbat or go to shul on Yom Kippur, and a figure that blows away any other demographic group. I continue to believe that going to college—particularly to secular colleges and universities—is one of the great unexamined parts of the American Jewish story.

That belief has motivated my own academic work, and it is propelled by my professional life as a campus rabbi. My reading is colored by it: I tend to look for the university as a site or even an actor in many of the issues and debates of American Jewish life today. When Danny Gordis wrote his recent piece about the response to Israeli Ambassador Daniel Oren’s commencement address at Brandeis, my interest honed in on the question of what it meant for Brandeis to be a Jewish university (a notoriously complicated question). What seemed at play, in my reading, were competing imaginaries: the imaginaries (in the Benedict Anderson or Arjun Appadurai sense) of the Jewish community, on the one hand, and those of the liberal, secular university on the other (though I would also argue that the two are braided and overlapping—Jews have been deeply involved in constructing our imaginaries of universities).

Or take Peter Beinart’s recent essay, which has generated much discussion and some gnashing of teeth. Note that in the very first line—the very first line!—of his essay, Beinart invokes the imaginary of the Jewish college student: “In 2003, several prominent Jewish philanthropists hired Republican pollster Frank Luntz to explain why American Jewish college students were not more vigorously rebutting campus criticism of Israel.” He goes on to say that “Most of [them]… were liberals, broadly defined. They had imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights. And in their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel.”

Those values—particularly that one about open debate—are associated for many of us with a key element of the college imaginary: the development of “critical thinking.” In the words of the former dean of Harvard College: The adults colleges produce should “rejoice in discovery and in critical thought.” They should “advance knowledge, promote understanding, and serve society.” The education provided by the college “should liberate students to explore, to create, to challenge, and to lead.” These adults should be free agents, independent and inner-directed subjects who can make up their own minds, and who will be able to do so throughout their lives: “The support the College provides to students is a foundation upon which self-reliance and habits of lifelong learning are built.”

This is what we aim for in higher education, in the words of the nation’s oldest institution in the business. It is what we imagine about ourselves as college-educated people. And since Jews are college-educated people, it is also what we imagine of ourselves as Jews.  To close the loop, we could put it this way: to be Jewish is to be a critical thinker.

But that’s wrong. (more…)

I have been slow to respond to Gary Rosenblatt’s important column from two weeks ago. The whole thing is worth reading, but here is the key nugget:

We need to think on a communal level which values and lifestyles we are willing to sacrifice and which are most important to keep.

Now my wife would say that I am given to imagining apocalyptic scenarios. But of course I also predicted a major financial collapse in the U.S. for a while now, so my prognostications have to be worth something. Gary is right of course: We are at a moment of reckoning, and old assumptions for all our nonprofits, and particularly our day schools, have to be reassessed and addressed honestly.

As one of my teachers told me years ago, “You send your kids to school to be socialized. Anything you really want them to learn, you have to take responsibility for yourself.” Now I don’t quite believe that. I do think my kids actually learn stuff at school, and I have great confidence in their teachers. But having seen many products of expensive Jewish day school educations in my current work, I can testify that all of them come out with fine college prep in secular studies; but many, if not most, have been allowed to neglect their Jewish studies. Indeed, for many, their Jewish courses don’t even show up on their transcripts. To me this is a serious indictment, and it reinforces my teacher’s point: Many people send their kids to day school as a way of socializing them with other Jews, but not in an effort to develop a serious engagement with Torah.

I find something pernicious in the idea of having the state pay for “secular studies,” since that means they can never be integrated with religious studies. But I find something even more problematic in our rigorous approach to secularism in this country–which Gary addresses in his column. At the same time, as a product of public schooling myself, I think there’s something to be said for a public school education coupled with a rigorous commitment to Torah study and rich informal Jewish education.

Like Gary, I don’t have the answers. But I do see the writing on the wall, and it’s about time we had a community conversation about what we want, what is possible, and what our priorities are.