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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Future of Jewish Education

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Changing Jewish Communities

No. 52,

  • Important new trends and major challenges have reshaped the field of Jewish education over the past two decades. An overarching development has been families’ insistence on choice as they try to find the schools and programs offering the best fit for each of their children. These expressions of consumerism have required Jewish educational institutions to tailor their programs to the needs of individual students and their parents.
  • Whereas some programs continue to expect students to invest only minimal time, a number of “immersive educational experiences” have attracted larger populations. These include day schools, which continue to show signs of enrollment growth, overnight summer camps, and a diverse mix of programs in Israel.
  • A number of Jewish foundations and private philanthropists have become champions of Jewish education, funding crucial programs and in some instances driving an agenda for renewal in the Jewish-education field. It is impossible to understand what has happened in key areas without reference to the active role of philanthropy. Although some donors have been hard hit by the economic crisis, big funders still remain major forces for change.
  • Without discounting the considerable impact of new investments and strategies, the Jewish-education field continues to struggle with perennial challenges. One is the recruitment and retention of trained teachers for a field that does not pay high salaries and often offers only part-time employment. Another is financing for a system that is supported by fees and voluntary contributions. Of late, several new challenges have surfaced. The ever-increasing number of children from intermarried families who attend various Jewish educational programs raise issues that have not been properly thought through. Israel education has become a vastly complicated enterprise. Harnessing new technologies for Jewish education is yet another challenge. And spiraling costs of Jewish living are discouraging some families from taking maximal advantage of the rich offerings available.

“It is hard to think of any sphere of organized Jewish activity in the United States that has exhibited as much dynamic energy and creative rethinking in recent decades as the field of Jewish education. Much of the experimentation has been driven by large foundations and their staff members in partnership with creative educators. They, in turn, have acted in response to significant new trends in the American Jewish community.

“One overarching development of recent decades is that Jewish education increasingly is seen by families as a commodity. To appreciate this shift, let’s recall that in the mid-twentieth century it was common for families to send all their children to the nearest congregational school, often called a Hebrew school, at the synagogue of their denominational preference. In our own time it is not unusual for a family to enroll one child in a Jewish day school, another in a supplementary school, and hire a private tutor for a third child.”

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His research focuses on organized American Jewish life since the end of World War II. He has edited two volumes of essays on Jewish education and published a series of reports on Jewish education for the Avi Chai Foundation.

“This insistence on finding the right fit for each child has forced Jewish educational institutions to tailor their programs to the needs of individuals, a development with both healthy and problematic consequences. Healthy because schools are now forced to be more attuned to individual needs and learning styles; problematic because schools are at times taxed beyond what they can possibly deliver given their limited resources. A number of day schools and some supplementary schools have created separate tracks and in other ways try to address varied learning styles.”

Day Schools

“For a variety of reasons, some sectors of the Jewish community have become more receptive to placing young Jews in immersive educational environments. This is evident, for example, in the impressive growth of day schools, a form of Jewish education in which children attend five days a week, generally from sometime between 8-9 a.m. until close to 5 p.m. Until the immediate postwar years, only small numbers of children attended such schools. In the late 1940s, barely more than a handful of Jewish day schools existed outside of New York City. Nowadays almost every Jewish community with a population of over ten thousand has at least one Jewish day school, and quite a few communities numbering only five thousand Jews support such schools. Initially, day schools spread far and wide thanks to the efforts of the Orthodox Torah UMesorah movement. And to the present day, Orthodox schools are dominant in this arena. According to the most recent census of day schools by Marvin Schick, over 80 percent of children are in schools under Orthodox auspices.[1]

“Although some day schools under Conservative and communal auspices were established sooner, it was only in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and particularly in its last decade, that non-Orthodox families have been attracted in greater numbers to day schools. Initially these were mainly Conservative schools. Today, it’s more likely that the new institutions are nondenominational community day schools or Chabad outreach day schools for non-Orthodox children. Both draw children from diverse backgrounds, although the main feeders are Conservative homes.

“Conservative day schools – usually called Solomon Schechter schools – have suffered setbacks in the twenty-first century. Nearly one-third of the schools have disappeared and overall enrollment has declined by more than 25 percent, according to the census figures of Marvin Schick. This is attributable to the decline in population of self-identified Conservative Jews and also to pressure some federations have placed on Schechter schools to shed their denominational affiliation and  become community schools for all families interested in day school education.”

Jewish Residential Camps

“A second form of immersive Jewish education attracting a significant following is the Jewish residential camp. Campers in these settings are enrolled for a period of three to eight weeks in a round-the-clock Jewish ambience. In such intensive settings, overnight camps have the opportunity to expose young people to Jewish practices, cultural expression, and ways of thinking. Residential camps offer an unparalleled opportunity to immerse young people in Jewish living. Many Jewish leaders have attested to the profound influence of camp experiences in their own lives and in shaping them as Jews.

“Efforts to expose larger numbers of young Jews to residential camping were greatly spurred by the establishment of the Foundation for Jewish Camping in 1998. The foundation claims it works with 150 camps, seventy thousand campers, and ten thousand counselors across North America to further its mission. It has raised significant new funds from several large foundations and plays an advocacy role for camping in Jewish communal settings. Judging from the numbers it provides, though, there is still a long way to go before Jewish overnight camping attracts more than a small minority of Jewish children.”

Programs in Israel

“A third mode of immersive experience consists of a range of programs in Israel. The ten-day Birthright trip can boast the largest enrollments, having brought some two hundred thousand North American young adults to Israel over its first decade. Longitudinal research by scholars at the Cohen Center at Brandeis University suggests there are lasting positive outcomes for Birthright alumni.

“Longer trips, especially involving study and active participation in Israeli life, have had an even greater impact. These range from summer Israel Experience programs for high school students to semester or yearlong study, volunteering, and other programs for college-age and older Jews.

“Among Orthodox Jews, yeshiva (for males) or seminary-study (for females) experiences have become very popular as a way to spend the gap year after high school and before university studies commence. Orthodox parents and educators see these programs as an ideal way to expose high school graduates to sustained Jewish study and living. Masa, an umbrella for all kinds of extended Israel programs, is actively trying to recruit participants from many backgrounds to programs offering primarily educational, service, Hebrew-language, or other specialized emphases.”

Supplementary Jewish Schooling

“The vast arena of part-time Jewish schooling has also been subject to rethinking in recent years. Thanks to the early efforts of the Experiment in Congregational  Education at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and programs such as the NESS initiative begun in Philadelphia by the local bureau of Jewish education, considerable work has gone into reexamining how education ought to function in a synagogue environment. Recognizing that educational programs in these settings cannot be separated from the life of the synagogue and that education must be central to everything a congregation does, some innovators have experimented with bold new efforts to create what educational thinker Isa Aron has dubbed ‘congregations of learners.’ The earlier notion that children can literally be walled off in separate school wings has been rejected in favor of an effort to integrate Jewish education into everything the synagogue does.

“A great deal of new thinking is also informing efforts to reverse deeply entrenched stereotypes about the alleged tediousness and shallowness of supplementary Jewish schooling. Even the new rubric used to describe these programs-they are now described by many as complementary, not supplementary-stresses the positive. Educators strive to ensure that students enjoy rich experiences in school, and work hard to mix formal and informal educational elements so as to make school time more enjoyable. Some schools have experimented with hiring full-time teachers to give their staff members greater incentives to invest themselves in their work. And congregations have enlisted a broad range of stakeholders in the task of educating the next generation.”

Targeting Families

“In line with this larger goal, family education and parent education have risen in importance too. Educators understand that children cannot be taught in isolation. Families are needed as allies in the process of Jewish education. This, in turn, has led some complementary schools to expand programs bringing families together for religious and educational activities. Parents are urged to deepen their own Jewish education if they are to be partners with schools.

“Often institutions don’t have a choice in the matter because some parents are clamoring for attention for themselves in school programs. A recent study, Back to School by Alex Pomson and Randal Schnoor, focuses on a community day school in Toronto[2] and demonstrates how a day school is as much about the parents as about the children. Parent bodies have come to regard the school as a place where they will receive continuing Jewish education and as a locus of community for their families.

“Thus a serious new burden is placed on schools. It is difficult enough to educate children. Now schools are expected also to educate parents. Hard as it may be,  schools have no choice. For them to run programs for parents once a week or a couple of times a month is, indeed, a radical shift. But educators understand that unless parents are on board to reinforce what is being taught, it will be that much harder to win over the children. They also recognize that they have an opportunity to reach parents who never acquired a strong Jewish education. Jewish schools are now assuming a larger role as educators of the entire family.”

No Magic Bullet

Wertheimer points out that time constraints continue to vex Jewish education. “Even some day schools lack the time to offer a rounded Jewish education, especially when parents pressure educators to give priority to offering the best possible general education, even if it means scanting the Jewish subject matter. In many day schools, there is no parity in the number of hours children are exposed to Jewish as compared to general education. This is all the more so in part-time Jewish schools, many of which have reduced the number of contact hours with students. When the latter are present for merely a handful of hours per week over a twenty-five-week school year, how much Judaica can be taught?

“This situation is further exacerbated by the precipitous rates of attrition in the post-bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah years. Beginning with seventh grade, the number of children enrolled in complementary schools declines and that drop becomes ever sharper after grades 8 and 9. By twelfth grade, merely a small fraction of children who were enrolled before their bar or bat mitzvah are still taking classes.

“As they try to retain teenage students, some high school programs, especially those under community auspices, have developed diverse options that attract hundreds of teens. In addition to formal schooling, a number of informal educational ventures such as youth group activities and Israel trips have been established to engage teens. Rather than limit themselves to formal classes, programs offer young people the opportunity to express themselves through music and art, chesed (social action) projects, Israel advocacy, and other forms of service. Unfortunately, all these efforts combined only attract a minority of Jewish teens.”

Adult Education

“Recognizing the importance of parental influence, a number of national programs have been created specifically for adult education. The largest of these, and the least acknowledged, is the Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) run by Chabad. With some 150,000 unduplicated students over the past decade and over 250 sites offering the same courses developed centrally, the JLI is reaching a large population of adults in clearly structured, piloted, and thoughtfully conceived courses.[3] Currently, thirty-seven distinct six-week courses have been developed, which are offered on a rotating cycle. The Melton Center in Jerusalem also has developed satellite programs all over the United States, as has the Meah program conceived at the Boston Hebrew College, which now has a national reach. Both programs began as two-year curricula and can be extended for additional years of study.

“The initiators of these programs understood that many adults seek to deepen their Jewish knowledge. Often participants are parents who feel a lack of competence in helping their children with their day school or supplementary-school studies. Others belong to an older, empty-nest population that is prepared to invest some of its time to expand its Judaic knowledge.

“Leadership training programs with strong Jewish educational content have also proliferated. Probably the best known is the Wexner Heritage Program under the auspices of the Wexner Foundation. It identifies Jews in their thirties, forties, and fifties who have leadership potential and provides them with a two-year intensive program of Jewish education that includes an educational trip to Israel. The idea behind it is to give these potential leaders a more sophisticated vocabulary for speaking about Jewish matters by exposing them to Jewish texts and leading rabbis and academic scholars of Judaism. The elite quality of this program adds to its luster.

“A far-flung network of educational programs also is directed specifically at young adults in their twenties and thirties. These include leadership training programs with Jewish content sponsored by national Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the federation movement, among others. Some are directed at subpopulations, such as Jews of this age who are of Russian origin. And then there are various outreach programs by Orthodox educators, ranging from Chabad to Aish HaTorah to community kollelim, whose Orthodox staff members commit to teaching classes and individuals even as they continue to pursue their own advanced Jewish studies. All this is part of an educational revolution that is taking place for American Jewish adults.”[4]


“Many of the most interesting initiatives in Jewish education have been devised and funded by foundations. This in itself represents a marked departure from the past when central agencies for Jewish education, denominational education departments, and federations played a more prominent role. On the positive side, foundations and philanthropists can move quickly and adroitly to address needs; they also have shown some capacity to plan creatively rather than rely on old models. The maverick nature of foundations, however, reduces coordination. As a result, educational institutions are left uncertain about how to plan for the future; and when they lose foundation support they tend to lack the capacity to continue programs on their own. Hence the Jewish-education field is littered with experimental programs briefly supported and then abandoned. The strength and weakness of foundations is their agility and decisiveness: when they decide to act, they already have the money in hand to make things happen. But they also can be capricious in their decisions, leaving educational programs on a whim and seemingly oblivious of the competition they have spawned between institutions.

“Fortunately, funders have also created partnerships. Working in concert, they have created new umbrella organizations to strengthen subfields of Jewish education. These include organizations to help day schools (PEJE), early childhood programs (JECEI), supplementary schools (PELIE), and residential camps (FJC). Each of these offers help in marketing programs in one of these subfields and in raising additional financial resources for them. In some cases, they also work to bring about savings through the pooling of resources.”


Costs of Jewish Education

Wertheimer underlines that simultaneously there are ongoing major challenges in the Jewish-education field. “Several of these hamper progress seriously. In some communities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and Kansas City lay leaders have emerged as dedicated champions of Jewish education, and as noted, a number of foundations with assets in the hundreds of million dollars have involved themselves in support of Jewish education. Still, the needs far outstrip available resources. This especially pertains to the high cost of the most immersive types of Jewish education. Day school tuition can run from $10,000 to $30,000 per child for each year of enrollment; summer camps can cost $4-8,000 for a season; and trips to Israel are equally, if not more costly, depending on their duration. If these forms of Jewish education are not to become solely the province of the wealthy, large sums of scholarship money must be raised.

“Equally challenging, programs and schools are forced to subsist with a lot less than they need to deliver excellence. Only a limited number of cutting-edge curricula, online resources, and enrichment programs are available for Jewish educators. Many day schools must make do with shabby physical facilities. And continuing education for teachers and school heads is limited. In the current recession, service providers such as denominational education departments and local central agencies for Jewish education have been the first victims of deep cutbacks.

“Even before the latest economic crisis, educators have been supported in only limited ways. This is especially evident in small schools, lacking in resources. Sixty percent of Jewish supplementary schools enroll fewer than one hundred children and 40 percent of Jewish day schools enroll fewer than fifty. These schools cannot afford to be picky in the personnel they assign to the classroom. Many supplementary schools rely largely on avocational teachers who volunteer their time. Although many of these people are highly dedicated, they are neither professionals nor licensed.”

The Personnel Crisis

“The part-time nature of many forms of Jewish education contributes to the challenge of recruiting personnel. Some supplementary schools meet only once a week for two or three hours. Many others meet twice a week, for five to six hours. Youth workers also are hired for only a few hours per week, as are many early childhood teachers. Given that part-time work is not well remunerated and has little status in the Jewish community, is it any wonder that it is hard to recruit and retain personnel?

“Not surprisingly, the burden of part-time teaching rests on people who have the time or are especially in need of employment. In the past, much of Jewish education relied on women who were homemakers. As the large majority of Jewish women have entered the labor force as full-time workers, there has been a steep decline in the number of people available as part-time Jewish educators.

“In the past, the other large pool of Jewish educators consisted of foreign-born teachers. For example, in the post-Holocaust era, many were immigrants from Europe or from Israel. The cultural gap between some of these teachers and their students often made effective communication difficult. By now, this pool has largely evaporated as the immigrant generation has passed from the scene and Israelis in the United States are finding full-time work.

“There is yet a further ramification to the part-time nature of Jewish education: it is hard to expect teachers to participate in planning meetings that could strengthen coordination between classes. It also is not reasonable to expect part-timers to invest their own time in in-service programs to help them upgrade their pedagogic skills and Jewish learning. Some foundations and federations have begun to fund special in-service programs that provide part-time teachers with incentives to upgrade their Judaica and pedagogic skills.

“The need for such upgrading was recently highlighted when the Reform movement invested heavily in a sophisticated, carefully conceived supplementary-school curriculum. Although hundreds of schools adopted the Chai curriculum, as it is called, a great many could use only portions of it because the teaching staff was not equipped to handle some of the more challenging sections.”

Day Schools

“Day schools contend with a different set of personnel issues. Unlike supplementary schools, they can offer more or less full-time employment. Many educators also are attracted by a schedule that takes Shabbat and the Jewish holidays into account, permitting them time to prepare for these occasions. Men and women from the haredi and Hasidic communities are especially drawn to day school teaching.

“This presents an ideological issue for day schools of a different outlook: on the one hand, they rely increasingly on a teaching staff drawn from the haredi sector; on the other, they cannot reasonably expect those teachers to reflect the ideals of the day school. When a day school under Conservative auspices, for example, employs teachers of a Chabad outlook, they cannot expect those teachers to speak with reverence about Solomon Schechter or the Conservative synagogues students attend. Similar challenges face community day schools.

“The same can be said of haredi teachers employed by Modern Orthodox schools. They presumably will teach their particular worldview. Under the circumstances, the notorious “slide to the right” evident in the Modern Orthodox world should hardly come as a surprise. Coupled with a year of exposure to yeshiva programs in Israel during their gap year, young Jews raised in Orthodox homes are exposed to educators who preach a Jewish worldview at odds with the philosophy of their schools and homes.”


Wertheimer remarks: “Thus far I have referred to the high costs of Jewish education shouldered by families. There are communal dimensions to this as well. Communities assume responsibility for Jewish education in different ways. The further right one goes in the Orthodox world, the larger the sums of scholarship money available and also the lower the tuitions are. In Modern Orthodox, Conservative, and community day schools, progressively less scholarship money is available. Why? Because Jewish education is viewed as a communal responsibility in some quarters and not in others.

“Federations of Jewish philanthropy also allocate per capita support for day schools, summer camps, and Israel trips according to wildly different standards. The most contentious issue is federation support for day schools. In New York, which has the largest population of day school enrollments, the local federation contributes far less per capita than in communities with small day school populations. The New York federation argues that it would have to allocate virtually all of its annual campaign just to cover day school tuitions. Moreover, within federations, there are tugs-of-war over favoritism toward day schools. Rather than seeing such schools as a powerful instrument for preparing students to participate in Jewish life, some communal leaders still regard day schools as a private choice parents make, and therefore unworthy of communal support.

“Some communities, with active federation support, have begun to amass special endowment funds for day school scholarships. George Hanus, a philanthropist in Chicago, has been a strong advocate of such endowments. Although the sums raised to date are not adequate to the challenge, the general direction is encouraging because it bespeaks a broader understanding that a Judaically well-educated population is a vital necessity for the American Jewish future and therefore must be a high priority for communities.”

The Debate over Priorities

“Communal support for Jewish education is also hampered by a lack of prioritization. For much of American Jewish history, Jewish education was the province of a small sector, often toiling in near isolation. Given what we now know about powerful assimilatory trends sapping Jewish communal life, Jewish education can no longer be treated as a luxury, but as a vital necessity for the future of American Jewry. If this is properly understood, communal thinking will have to shift its priorities. Some of the issues will be painful, particularly as they implicate competing priorities. Which institutions are most worthy of continuing support? How does a federation balance the needs of the elderly, whom we are commanded to revere and support, while we are also commanded to provide a Jewish education to our children? In a time of limited resources, what is the proper tradeoff between Jewish and universal needs, between social and educational institutions, between community relations work and heightened literacy?

“In the case of day schools, creative, new thinking about ways to tap government money in the form of tax credits or funding for the general-studies portion of day school education would also help. Given the strict separationist convictions of most Jewish organizations, though, this new thinking is unlikely to gain traction. The question is whether such public policy stances make sense any longer, in particular when one looks beyond America’s borders at some sections of Canada, Britain, or Australia where Jewish day schools receive state funding. Jewish communities there don’t seem to be any worse for the wear. Indeed, they boast far higher rates of day school attendance than are commonly found in the United States. Debate on these issues has been largely suppressed in the key organizations of the American Jewish community who continue to be pious adherents of the separationist faith, even as  families stagger under the burden of tuition payments or eschew the most intensive-and impactful-forms of Jewish education.

“Supplementary education is another area meriting new ideas. The product of massive geographic mobility in the post-World War II period when new synagogues were established mainly in suburban areas, it is primarily conducted under the aegis of congregations. Virtually every synagogue, regardless of its resources, is convinced it must run its own supplementary-school program in order to attract members. Once congregations began demanding that families wishing to celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah must enroll their children for three to five years of Jewish education, they created a synagogue and educational model predicated on the right of passage at puberty. American Jews quickly learned that they must join a synagogue when their children reached school-age. Many also decided to drop their synagogue membership once their youngest child had celebrated a bar or bat mitzvah. By the twenty-first century, that model has begun to break down with the appearance of freelancers, independent operators who provide a religious service for the bar or bat mitzvah family in a rented hall and a minimum of preparation for the children.

“Rather than regard this as unfair competition, supplementary programs would do well to rebuild as institutions with a mission to socialize and educate young Jews for participation in all aspects of Jewish life, not only for bar or bat mitzvah performances. Some of this work has begun. Supplementary schools are incorporating a mix of experiential, family, and formal education into their programs. They are creating tracks to accommodate the demanding schedules of students and their parents. They are running religious and study programs on Shabbat. And they are offering elective opportunities to high school students in order to meet the needs and interests of a diverse learning population. All this has warmed up the atmosphere of schools and has converted them into far more welcoming settings. Morale among students and teachers in such schools seems to have risen.

“The remaining challenge is on the output side. Supplementary schools must clarify what they hope to achieve with students entrusted to their programs. Each school would do well to create a process to define what its graduates should experience and absorb over the years they are enrolled. The next step is for educators to determine how students will be exposed to the Jewish learning and living the school aspires for them to internalize. Most supplementary schools cannot as yet articulate their objectives and the step-by-step process for attaining these, but they can be guided to develop their thinking and planning if they are focused on learning and experiential outcomes.”

Educational Haves and Have-Nots

“Jewish communal and educational leaders must also consider the gap between what I will call the Jewish educational ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ In Jewish education we increasingly see a sector of young Jews who are receiving multiple Jewish educational exposures through day school or supplementary-school education, while also attending Jewish summer camps, traveling to Israel on programs, being involved in youth-movement activities, and being embedded in an educational and social reality that reinforces Jewish learning. Not surprisingly their levels of Jewish literacy and connection are strong. But the majority of Jewish children are not given these multiple exposures. Barely one in ten participate in youth movements and trips to Israel. Only a small fraction remains enrolled in supplementary programs after bar or bat mitzvah. And only small numbers travel to Israel, a pattern Birthright Israel seeks to remedy. How will the American Jewish community avoid a deep chasm between the educated haves and the undereducated have-nots?

“Certainly, these categories are not fixed. Some parents who themselves did not receive a rich Jewish education want better for their children. And some programs targeted at adults are impressing upon them that they and their children will live richer, more meaningful lives if they do not settle for the minimum. One example: in a number of communities, an experiment was conducted in which the Melton adult- education program was provided free of charge to parents of very young preschool children. As a result of their exposure to those classes, many parents who would have been in the uncommitted camp in the past became much more interested in the types of Jewish education their children were receiving. They also wanted to expand their own Jewish knowledge through adult education.

“A second example: the Wexner Heritage Foundation has informally emphasized the value of day school education to people who have never had any kind of exposure to it. In the San Francisco Bay area, for example, several new day schools were established by Wexner alumni. When asked why, they explained: ‘I didn’t know anything about day school education in the past and would never have considered it. As a result of my educational experiences I now want more and better Jewish schooling for my children.’ Thus the borders between the educationally engaged and disengaged are not firm.”

Effects of Intermarriage

“The continuing ripple effects of massive intermarriage have had huge implications for Jewish education, even if little systematic thinking has gone into addressing the needs of children of intermarried parents. Jewish institutions seem to assume that inclusion is the sum total of what is necessary for intermarried families and everything else will work itself out. But as anyone who reads the blogs of young Jewish adults who have been raised this way knows, matters are far more complex.[5]

“Questions of identity play out in very complicated ways. Not for nothing do many such young adults who have received a Jewish education continue to struggle with their allegiances. Do they identify with their Jewish grandparents or with their Christian ones? Even if raised and educated as Jews, how do they honor their Christian or Hindu parent? What is their cultural, if not religious identity? And can Jewish schools even educate for endogamy in those circumstances? Jewish education has barely begun to help students negotiate these emotionally difficult questions.”

Harnessing New Technologies

“New technologies and forms of information gathering have posed a different set of challenges. True, there is a massive Jewish educational presence on the internet in the form of portals for finding information about many Jewish matters. Less certain is how Jewish education, both formal and informal, can utilize it.

“The looming issue is whether to substitute web-based curricula, self-guided study, and even online textbooks for the frontal, teacher-driven classroom experiences that have long stood at the center of formal Jewish education. Educators in the United States and Israel have been developing web-based options to enable students to pursue their own interests, while working at their own pace. Here recent educational thinking about multiple intelligences connects with the fluidity of the internet.

“For example, if a text from the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) is the focus of study, some students will draw on traditional commentators; others might explore biblical references to animals by drawing on zoology; still others might connect to musical references in the text or artistic representations of a text. All of these individually tailored options are made possible through the web. But to benefit from these options, students will require very different types of guidance from their teachers than what generally happens in conventional classrooms. The roles of the educator and the learner both change. And both will have to be retrained to have different expectations.

“New technologies also open new options to enrich small schools at a vast geographic remove from large centers of Jewish population. Properly harnessed, the internet can connect far-flung classrooms across the country. Similarly, videoconferencing makes it possible to expose students to teachers who live far away from their schools. In some Orthodox institutions, a teacher sitting in Jerusalem can lead a class discussion with students situated in New Jersey, thanks to remote-learning technologies. Thus, the often-noted capability of new technologies to connect people across vast distances is being adapted for class use in Jewish educational settings. In all likelihood, we are only at the beginning of a revolution in the delivery of Jewish education that will remake schools, classrooms, the roles of educators, and individual learning.”

Israel Education

“Since the Six Day War, Jewish students in the United States have been exposed to various types of education focused on Israel as a way to narrow the geographic distance between American Jewry and the Jewish state. In recent decades, though, Israel education has become a vastly more complicated enterprise. An anecdote will illustrate this point: after I observed a class about Israel in a supplementary high school, the teacher lamented how difficult his task had become. ‘Twenty years ago,’ he said, ‘when I mentioned Golda, Moshe Dayan, and Yitzhak Rabin, students immediately knew whom I was speaking about. More than that, they regarded these people as Jewish heroes. Today there is far less name-recognition and one wonders whether there are any Israeli leaders who are regarded as heroes by young American Jews?’

“As this heroic age of Israel-at least in the minds of some American Jews-has passed, the question is: what is a proper way of enticing young Jews to relate to Israel? What are the points of connection with the country? It is one thing to excite student interest when speaking about military victories against great odds, but how can American Jews today relate to an Israel that seems so distant and perhaps even alien?

“Put differently, what is the proper focus and content of Israel education? Should Israel education primarily inform students about the Arab-Israeli conflict so as to prepare them to cope with news accounts that portray Israel in a negative light? The problem with this approach is that it emphasizes the abnormality of Israel and its besieged status-both of which convey negative messages about Israel. Or should the purpose of Israel education be mainly teaching modern Hebrew? The advantage, of course, would be to open them to Israeli culture-literature, film, music, and so on. But few would make much use of modern Hebrew in the United States unless they set out on a deliberate course of keeping in touch with Israeli life. Or should the focus be on Israel as the land described in the Bible? If so, the emphasis would be on an earlier era of Jewish history. Or, should the focus be on Jewish peoplehood, thereby emphasizing responsibilities Jews properly have for one another?

“Clearly, the teaching of Hebrew transcends the domain of Israel studies and goes to the heart of Jewish culture, connecting Jews both synchronically and diachronically to one another, as does the teaching of Jewish peoplehood. Israel studies, then, is intertwined with other large goals of Jewish education, such as the upgrading of Jewish literacy and the strengthening of bonds between Jews around the world.

“For now, Israel education is hardly a settled issue in contemporary American Jewish education. Te subject is indeed fraught with controversy and confusion. In time, this ferment may lead to new ways of connecting American Jews to the real Israel and a deeper understanding of its complexities and remarkable achievements.”


Wertheimer concludes: “I stated at the outset that the field of Jewish education has been dynamic and has shown evidence of adaptability. Fifty years ago, no one could have predicted any of the following: that day school education through high school would become the dominant experience of nearly all Orthodox youth and a significant minority of young people raised in Conservative homes; that educational trips to Israel would come to be considered a ‘birthright’; that Jewish parents would enroll their children in multiple types of formal and informal Jewish education, rather than rely on a minimal number of years spent in the nearest congregational school; that foundations with hundreds of millions of dollars would become the prime movers of the Jewish educational enterprise; that the American Jewish community would create so vast an array of  educational options for Jews as young as preschool all the way through adulthood; and that Jewish studies would flourish on hundreds of college campuses. These are but a few examples of the huge transformation in American Jewish education over the past few decades.

“Still, there is no gainsaying that large challenges remain: recruiting and retaining qualified teachers has become, perhaps, more difficult than ever before; time constraints are increasingly severe in the most popular forms of education; funding is limited; the population is dispersed ever more widely, making it harder to deliver a Jewish education to some children; and stunning levels of intermarriage create a new set of issues that educators are only beginning to address. Most important: even as evidence mounts of a strong association between intensive and immersive Jewish educational experiences in childhood and later adult engagement in Jewish life, many American Jews continue to resist placing their children in the kinds of settings that will educate and socialize them for future Jewish civic participation.

“The outcome of all these challenges is hardly foreordained. Much depends on the will of funders, educators, parents, and communal leaders to invest in nurturing the next generation of American Jews. A brief look backward demonstrates just how much has been accomplished in a short period.

“Looking at the contemporary scene, it is evident that a dramatic transformation has occurred in the way informed Jewish adults think about Jewish education. Once the communal stepchild, Jewish education has moved from the periphery of consciousness to a position of centrality where many influential leaders look to educational institutions to remedy much of what is sapping the vitality of American Jewish life. It is a tall order, but educators and their allies must rise to the challenge. The future of American Jewish life is riding on their ability to adapt to the new environment and educate the next generation.”

Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld

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[1] Marvin Schick, A Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States, 2008-2009 (New York: Avi Chai Foundation, 2009), 1.

[2]  Alex Pomson and Randal F. Schnoor, Back to School: Jewish Day School in the Lives of Adult Jews (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008).

[3] The JLI claims it enrolled nearly forty-three thousand adult learners in 2008.

[4]  Though technically outside the purview of education run by Jewish institutions, Jewish studies courses offered at hundreds of colleges and universities also offer opportunities for adult study of Jewish subject matter-for matriculated students and auditors from the wider community. Such courses have proliferated over the past few decades.

[5] For a particularly telling critique of communal policies that pretend outreach alone will solve all issues written by the daughter of intermarried parents, see Robin Margolis, “What Do Half-Jewish People Want from the Jewish Establishment?,”, 18 November 2009,

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Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he served as provost for a decade. His research focuses on organized American Jewish life since the end of World War II. He has edited two volumes of essays on Jewish education (both of them, Family Matters: Jewish Education in an Age of Choice and Learning and Community: Jewish Supplementary Education in the 21st Century, published by Brandeis University Press). He also has published a series of reports on Jewish education for the Avi Chai Foundation, includingLinking the Silos: How to Accelerate the Momentum in Jewish Education Today” and “Schools That Work: What We Can Learn from Good Jewish Supplementary Schools.”