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Executive Summary

This report was originally produced as part of a larger report of findings entitled Spreading and Sustaining Innovation: Accomplishments and Lessons Learned. Background information about the Coalition of Innovating Congregations, the partner organizations, and the initiatives for congregations are found in the full report. The full report and executive summary are available online and for download at www.innovatingcongregations.org/all.
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Spreading and Sustaining Innovation in Congregational Education: Accomplishments and Lessons Learned

Executive Summary



Beginning in 2009, the Jewish Education Project and the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE), in connection with the Leadership Institute of HUC and JTS (LI)[1], set out to engage in a five-year strategy to create a positive and measurable difference in the educational experience of children and families in congregational education programs with the support of UJA-Federation of New York. The transformation brought about innovation in a number of elements of the Jewish educational system within congregations—educational models or structures, professional development, lay-professional collaboration, principles of educational design, educational vision and goal setting, and assessment. All of these efforts ultimately sought to promote holistic Jewish education for children and families that focuses on learners’ knowledge, belief, values, actions, and sense of belonging, and to foster Jewish learning in which children and families construct meaningful and purposeful lives rooted in Jewish practice and community. This approach came to be known as “whole person learning.” The strategy included three different initiatives—LOMED, LOMED Chadash, and Express Innovation—that supported congregations’ innovations with materials, professional development, in-person and online gatherings, coaching by consultants, small financial grants, and the establishment of second-tier educational leadership. After four and a half years, these efforts have transformed the landscape of Jewish education in the New York area. Findings from the study of these efforts have critical implications for the work of Jewish education in New York and beyond. 


In over four years’ time, more than 50 congregations in the greater New York City area have joined the three initiatives; the strategy has produced significant accomplishments, including:

Creating a coalition of congregations devoted to ongoing educational innovation. Fifty congregations in the New York Area share a common language and set of approaches to educational innovation. They both push and support each other to create Jewish education that enables people to lead meaningful, purposeful Jewish lives. Their innovations touch over 3,400 children and 2,200 families.

Catalyzing creation of 17 new types of part-time educational models[2]. New models run the gamut from service learning to family Shabbat celebration to havurot meeting in the homes of learners. They alter the time, location, and focus of the learning; they redefine who the students and teachers are. These models offer alternatives to traditional religious school and Hebrew school models. By examining these models, other congregations can adapt their own innovative models more quickly; they do not have to create their own from scratch.

Instilling a practice of regularized, embedded professional learning in congregations. Prior to LOMED, in congregations that had professional development, it usually took the form of single workshops with little opportunity for follow-up or practice. Now congregations conduct regular professional learning focused on creating powerful learning for children and their families.

Establishing second-tier leadership in congregations. Through Professional Learning Teams, Educational Leadership Teams, and Coalition Educators, Coalition congregations have distributed leadership beyond the Director of Education. These structures promote greater depth and breadth of responsibility for education within the congregation and for the flow of innovative educational ideas and practices.

Originating a new approach to whole-learner assessment (Noticing). Before 2009, congregations’ goals for learners were either undefined or so numerous that they could not achieve them. They also lacked the tools to see if learners grew over time. Coalition congregations learned to focus on priority goals and to define learner outcomes to support the growth of the whole person. Using new tools and methods, many teachers are now assessing the growth of their learners over time.

Applying 21st Century design principles. Before the Coalition strategy began, teachers planned lessons to maximize a learner’s acquisition of knowledge. Now educators are using 21st Century design principles to create learning experiences anchored in caring purposeful relationships; that seek answers to the questions, challenges, and meaning of everyday life; enable individuals to construct their own meaning through inquiry, problem solving, and discovery; and fill learning with content that is rich and accessible.[3]

Developing a process for congregations to fast-track their way to innovation (Express Innovation). When the Coalition began its work, congregations went through an 18-month visioning process before beginning to pilot new educational models. Express Innovation congregations, using an expedited process and adapting models created by LOMED and LOMED Chadash congregations, launched pilot models in four to six months.

Lessons Learned

Through a number of approaches to data collection, research, and evaluation the initiatives have generated significant lessons about educational change in congregations with implications for practice and policy. Staff of the Collaboration to Sustain Innovation (CSI) and outside consultants collected program output data and demographic information in all congregations, conducted surveys on congregational capabilities and a social network analysis, collected feedback at/after events, surveyed parents, observed models in action using a proprietary protocol, and conducted interviews with directors of education and Coalition Educators. Findings from these efforts, taken together, yield the following lessons:

New models are worth building. Coalition research demonstrated that certain models are better suited to particular educational goals and experiences than others. There is a positive relationship between new models and the implementation of 21st Century learning principles. It is possible to achieve substantial educational change through a strategy focused on new models.

  • New models of Jewish education support 21st Century learning better than traditional religious schools, even ones with excellent reputations. Models that feature intergenerational learning, learning in real-time or authentic settings, and that engage the whole family and not just children enable 21st Century learning. Full-time teachers also increase the likelihood of implementing 21st Century learning.
  • Congregations of all types are capable of developing or adapting robust models. The robustness of a model did not depend on its movement affiliation, size, or tenure of leadership. In addition, many congregations can operate multiple models simultaneously.

Change is possible and it is happening. When CSI began implementing its strategy in New York, most congregational education took place in schools where learners were groups by age and learning happened in classrooms. Five years later, the landscape of congregational education has changed, including:

  • Education now focuses on learning for the “whole of a person”—not just cognitive or skills-oriented, but also focused on her sense of values or beliefs, her engagement in Jewish life and in the world, and her relationships with others and sense of belonging to the congregation, the Jewish people, and the world at large. By 2012-13, 90% of LOMED and LOMED Chadash congregations were implementing this approach. The “whole person learning[4]” educational framework has helped congregational educators think more broadly about the purposes of Jewish education and has reshaped the way they plan educational experiences.
  • Professional learning for teachers (which had been absent or took the form of one-shot workshops) became ongoing, peer-led learning focused on creating effective educational experiences. Last year 97% of LOMED and LOMED Chadash congregations conducted professional learning with teachers for an average of over 13 hours per congregation over the course of the year.
  • Fourteen (14) congregations have deployed Coalition Educators, second-tier leaders and full-time professionals, who work in several congregations at once, serving as engines of innovation in these congregations and network weavers of new ideas among congregations. Coalition Educators became vehicles for the flow of educational resources into the congregations, as well as sources of teacher education and curriculum development.

Change is a complex, time-intensive and long process. . .and it can be done more quickly. The most robustly developed models are found in congregations that have been engaged in educational change the longest.

  • On average, models in LOMED congregations (who have been engaged for four years) are more developed than those in LOMED Chadash congregations (who have been engaged for three years). Congregations that participated in The RE-IMAGINE Project of New York (i.e. were involved in educational change initiatives 3-5 years longer) had stronger models than those that did not participate in RE-IMAGINE. It takes time to create, develop and implement models.
  • Express Innovation congregations have been able to implement pilots in four to six months and new models within a year or two. Their ability to do so seems to stem from the availability of models they can adapt from other congregations, rather than needing to invent them. They have drawn on examples of those congregations that entered the process of change earlier and who created models from scratch.
  • Congregations are able to learn and practice methods of whole person assessment. However, teachers in congregational settings find it challenging to take on assessment of learning, perhaps because of the amount of time it takes, limited expertise, and the difficulty of measuring the types of outcomes to which teachers aspire.

Many levers contribute to the change process. A combination of strategies supported the process of change in New York area congregations.

  • In making educational change in congregations, educators employed multiple tools, supports, and interventions including consultants, funding, gatherings, new educational approaches, professional learning for teachers, and engaging teachers, clergy, and lay leaders in new leadership roles. Directors of Education valued their consultants most of all the resources they received. Funding enabled them to seed initiatives that they would likely not have started otherwise.
  • It is not clear, however, how the combination worked or whether, if any one of them were left out, the results would have been the same.

Relationships matter! The importance of relationships recurred as a theme across several studies, both as a strategy for change and a goal of change.

  • Directors of education valued their relationships with their consultants above all other resources. In the context of trusting relationships, consultants both supported and pushed the directors of education.  Educators want support from relationships with colleagues, and existing relationships could be built upon.
  • One of the principles of 21st Century learning addresses relationships. Some educators have expressed concern, even fear, that focusing educational experiences on relationships would dilute or supplant rich educational content. Research showed this fear was unfounded; new models were at once rich in relationships and content. Such concerns need not stand in the way of establishing innovative educational models.
  • Research conducted in collaboration with the Foundation for Jewish Camp uncovered other insights about relationships—the importance of relationships among parents and children in getting children to Jewish camps. Many families seek to send their children to camps where they know other children, suggesting that congregations may be wise to promote Jewish overnight camp attendance to groups of families. Parents value camp recommendations from friends. Congregations ought to be aware of personal relationships among parents and leverage recommendations among them.
  • The Directors of Education have established networks separate from the Coalition, and they prefer to build on and deepen these networks rather than to be placed into relationships with those they don’t already know. Educators are interested in working with others who share common concerns and issues, capacities and goals, particularly if they have an existing relationship.

The strategy encountered limits to how much change it could achieve. While data show evidence of significant change, in a few areas change was more modest or less consistently observed, i.e. in enrollment in new models, the use of assessment, and the use of distributed leadership[5] among lay leaders and teachers.  These areas of change may need to be approached in different ways or reconsidered as goals. Alternatively, more time may have been needed to achieve the goals or expectations may have been unrealistic.

  • In 2011, two years into the work of LOMED, the Collaboration to Sustain Innovation set a goal that congregations enroll more than 50% of families in high-impact models by 2015. To date, there is considerable variation among congregations in their progress toward that goal. Within the Coalition, an increasing number of congregations have made great strides to increase the enrollment in their whole person learning models while others have remained relatively low in their enrollment proportion. More LOMED and Express Innovation congregations appear to be achieving this goal than LOMED Chadash congregations.[6]  Despite the fact that just over half of families with children enrolled are enrolled in whole person learning models, nearly half remain in traditional school models.
  • Despite the historic lack of assessment in Jewish educational settings, many educators value assessment highly and some teachers are conducting it successfully. For others it has been challenging to establish assessment as a regular practice. Some directors and teachers have pushed back against using it due to the time it takes to carry out, the difficulty of creating and using assessments other than tests, and problems in assessing the types of outcomes teachers hope to achieve.
  • Congregations have experienced varying degrees of success in working with Educational Leadership Teams (ELTs). In some the ELT has powerfully engaged lay leaders, clergy, and teachers to think and act on educational visioning, planning and assessment. Some congregations found it difficult to mobilize lay leaders, clergy, and teachers to participate and have not succeeded in maintaining an ongoing ELT.
  • Professional Learning Teams add a new dimension to educational practice in some congregations, successfully fostering collaboration and investment among teachers, and modeling new educational approaches to the larger faculty. In some congregations, however, teachers did not want to participate—even if offered a stipend. Challenges included finding time to meet, translating and teaching the LOMED educational approaches to others, and overcoming the resistance of teachers to changing their practices. Staff turnover makes it necessary to bring new PLT members up to speed. In congregations with small staffs, there are few potential candidates to populate a PLT.

Implications for Policy and Practice

Lessons from the work of the Collaboration to Sustain Innovation yield recommendations for action in the field of Jewish education. One set of recommendations addresses funders and communal leaders and the focuses on concerns and decision-making at the policy level. The other addresses practitioners who seek to foster change, especially in congregations.

Policy: Implications for Funders and Communal Leaders

  1. New models of education make a difference and should be supported. Alternatives to traditional Hebrew School or Religious School are more effective at incorporating principles of 21st Century learning and should be supported. Models that include intergenerational learning, family engagement, and learning in “real time” are well suited to accomplishing outcomes that include but reach beyond knowledge acquisition.
  2. Communities must recognize and can take advantage of differing capacities for change among congregations. The “products” of “pioneers” with more developed capabilities for change can be disseminated to and adapted by other congregations.
  3. Change is a complex and time-intensive process with many layers, not all of which congregations can address simultaneously. Over time, congregations can work on various facets of their educational systems. Congregations with the most developed new models of education are the ones that have been engaged in the work of educational transformation the longest.  Sustained support, therefore, is critical. It allows congregations to innovate, implement and develop their approaches to effective education iteratively. While congregations can experiment more quickly with new models, it takes time for them to make innovative approaches a normative part of who they are and what they do.
  4. When sparking change, congregations fear failure and are reticent to take risks. Seed money enables and emboldens them to try new strategies and to sustain those that work.   Grants from organizations like the Jewish Education Project and/or UJA-Federation also bear symbolic significance to congregations and communicate to lay leaders that the work funded by the grants is valued.
  5. Congregations rely on and benefit from the thought leadership of a central agency to support them in learning about and implementing cutting edge educational concepts and practices.
  6. Existing relationships are key when employing a network strategy, and educators are more inclined to cultivate relationships that have developed organically. It is more efficient and effective to tap into existing networks than to create new, artificial ones.
  7. Approaches to making change still need experimentation and study.  It appears that change is supported by addressing many parts of the educational system in congregations—new models, professional learning for teachers, distributed leadership, funding, consulting support. We are not certain what amounts and what combinations of resources are most effective. It may be that different congregations need different combinations depending on contextual factors in the congregation and/or community.
  8. Recognizing that raising the enrollment of families is challenging and takes time, increased impact may require other opportunities for engagement beyond new models of religious school. These opportunities ought to embody principles of 21st Century education.

Practice: Implications for Congregations

  1. Be persistent. Change is difficult and it takes time to change an entire system. Barriers to making full-scale, systemic change can be considerable. Be prepared that it can be challenging to engage lay leaders and parents; to increase enrollment in innovative models; to transform teacher practices (e.g. assessment); and to connect the educational program to the larger congregation. Continue to refine your vision of what is possible, continue to experiment and to learn from your efforts, and be persistent.
  2. Embrace second tier leadership as an accelerator to change. Different staffing models engaging Coalition Educators and Educational Learning Teams relieve bottlenecks to innovation, and shared leadership among professionals and lay people can encourage innovation.
  3. Congregations need not rely solely on their own imaginations to implement innovative educational models. Congregations can adapt others’ models or use them to stimulate ideas.
  4. In developing or adapting a model, pay careful attention to near peer relationships; authentic time and family at the center. Research has demonstrated that these structures support 21st Century learning.


In 2014, education in New York congregations looks quite different from how it appeared in 2009. New models of learning for youth and families; a focus on cultivating relationships, values, and ways of living Jewishly in addition to knowledge; shared leadership of educational endeavors; and consistent professional development for teachers mark the contributions of the Collaboration to Sustain Innovation and the dedicated educators, lay leaders, and funders with whom they have worked.

And there is more work to do. More new models have yet to be created. Existing models can be more widely disseminated and adapted. Achieving the vision of fostering Jewish learning in which children and families construct meaningful and purposeful lives rooted in Jewish practice and community will require ongoing efforts in and among congregations and throughout the community. LOMED and Express Innovation have laid a significant foundation on which to build.

This report represents nearly five years of data collection, analysis, and reflection. We wish to thank our consultants Cindy Reich (the Experiment in Congregational Education) and Anna Marx (The Jewish Education Project) for their work in compiling this report as well as collecting and analyzing much of the data presented in the report. We also gratefully acknowledge Cyd Weissman, Director of Innovation in Congregational Learning at The Jewish Education Project, for her leadership, The Experiment in Congregational Education and its director, Dr. Rob Weinberg for taking the lead in coordinating the evaluation efforts for the Collaboration to Sustain Innovation, and Dr. Bill Robinson, Chief Strategy Officer of The Jewish Education Project for his guidance and insight.

[1] The partnership of the three organizations, the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE), the Jewish Education Project, and the Leadership Institute is referred to as the Collaboration to Sustain Innovation (CSI).

[2] An educational model is a structure within which educational experiences take place. A model has an overarching purpose for its participants. To achieve its purpose a model delineates when and where learning takes place, who the learners are, and who guides the learning. Models alone do not produce educational outcomes, but they provide a configuration in which learning happens.

[3] These principles derive from the work of Jonathan Woocher. See, for example, http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=341

[4] The whole-person framework aspires to learning that is not only cognitive, but that nurtures the whole person. It also focuses on goals for action/living, values and the building of relationships. It is based on the notion that the whole of a person, not just the head or the heart, needs to be nurtured to enable a Jewish child to grow into an engaged Jewish adult. Whole-person learning is also referred to as Knowing, Doing, Believing/Valuing, and Belonging (KDBB).

[5] Distributed leadership included collaboration between lay and professional leaders through Educational Leadership Teams (ELTs) and the involvement of teacher leaders through Professional Learning Teams (PLTs).

[6] LOMED congregations joined the Coalition at its inception. They created and implemented innovative models of Jewish education guided by lay and professional leadership and supported by consultants. Their work involved professional learning by teachers, the development of outcomes for learners in the areas of knowing, doing, believing/valuing and belonging, assessment of learning, and the use of principles of 21st Century learning. LOMED Chadash congregations joined the Coalition a year later; all had directors of education who had participated in the Leadership Institute. Express Innovation began their work from a different baseline of organizational readiness. These congregations selected from a menu of model prototypes and adapted them for their settings, rather than creating original models.

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