Where Is The Soul Of Jewish Education?

There are times when my role as a school leader pulls me into nitty-gritty logistics, never-ending details, and an insurmountable sense that my work will never end.

And there are times when I feel enthused, privileged, absolutely exhilarated by what I encounter, everyday. 

But other times, I feel frustrated– and want to share.

A couple of months back, I attended a national conference for Jewish educators. Over 2,000 of us – teachers, administrators, funders, board members – gathered together for three days to explore how to become better at this thing called Jewish Education. Inspirational.

And while the enlightening sessions ran the gamut from admissions to alternative tuition models to fundraising to telling better stories about our ourselves and our organizations, it seemed my fellow educators were slightly preoccupied.

See, we worry as educators. We think about how to better our craft, what new program, technology, curriculum item or platform might help us reach more children, differentiate better. We (are sometimes forced to) drive toward academic benchmarks, even when we know there’s more. We wonder how we can attract – and retain – better teachers. Enrollment is a continual challenge- in many schools, we are losing students year after year. We are losing money, year after year. We constantly live in the shadow of the Local Private School, that school that offers excellent academic education, excellent extracurriculars, excellent teachers and other excellent opportunities that will likely lead to excellent colleges. And we don’t feel excellent enough. We’re swept away by what’s trending on social media, the next innovative something that we want to believe will save our classrooms. We are small schools and large schools, well-funded schools and struggling schools, schools across the spectrum of Jewish community, that are toiling to convince parents that a Jewish education is a viable choice – a vital choice – for their children.

And we’re tired.

Yet perhaps we are fixating on the wrong questions. Maybe we need to dig deeper.  

Do we engage enough with what lies beneath the surface, with the underlying process, with the greater systems that interplay to create these ecosystems called ‘school’?  

Are we motivated to create private schools for Jewish kids- or Jewish schools? And do we really know the difference?

Do we see schools as places where we are pushing a product, forced to compete for ‘business’ –  or are we oriented enough toward the essence of what do?

Why aren’t we talking about G-d?

And where is the soul of Jewish education?

I am blessed to meet many passionate educators and school leaders who are looking to hone their craft. Many times, they turn to us for guidance or to witness our work. How can we differentiate better? Train our teachers better? Raise money better?  And really, we do not have all the answers. At all. Every day we learn something new. Yet I struggle at times to find common ground with educators who are focused on their work on a localized, almost-fragmented level. Most times, there is systemic change that needs to be made. But that entails looking at education at an interlocking, interdependent, interwoven system— with no easy fixes.

And as educators, we can get consumed with those supposed ‘easy fixes’ to the challenges that are easiest to point to. This Crisis and that Crisis. The latest pedagogy, best practice, trend, platform, technology. That particular standard, skill, or assessment protocol we look to implement.

Yet we are not just teachers and administrators, not just purveyors of information and skills.

We are social entrepreneurs, institutional entrepreneurs, activists, advocates, spiritual crusaders who are charged with the mission of actualizing the deepest potential of our future.

And that is big. Deep. And nuanced.

We need to fortify ourselves for the Big Questions, for the deeper truths, like how are we going to create a systemic, sustainable, change in the ecosystem of school? How are we acting as catalysts for our students to become their optimal selves, wholly actualized, in tune with their unique spiritual missions in this world? And how are we bringing them closer to an authentic, personal, empowering relationship with G-d?

This is hard work. This is grueling work. This is work that is underappreciated, undervalued, and underpaid. And the answers to these Big Questions will take us – teachers, administrators, funders, board members – working together. Collecting data. Looking for patterns. Sharing what works. Training our teachers in more dynamic ways. Constantly seeking to refine what is a Jewish education, able to build Jewish people. Always orienting to the ultimate reason why we are engaged in this work.

So I invite you, fellow institutional entrepreneurs, to join me in this work. To shake things up. To get uncomfortable.

Because Jewish Education is the breath that nourishes the body of the Jewish nation.

And our teachers, our advocates, they are the heart. They are the sweat, the passion, the drive that never gives up.

And where, of where, is the soul of Jewish education?

It’s in our students, our children — of course.