experiments, instruments & measurement book

Report: The Impact of New Models of Congregational Jewish Education

From 2009-2015, The Jewish Education Project, in partnership with the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE), designed and implemented a strategy aimed at reimagining congregational education for children in grades K-8. The initiative, supported by UJA-Federation of New York, operated on the assumption that the prevalent model of “religious school,” as a weekly 2-6 hour classroom model, was flawed by design and inherently produced poor, limited results. Efforts at improvement typically affected little more than isolated programmatic components, and resulted in little to no change overall. (Aron, Lee Weinberg, 2002). The ultimate goal of The Jewish Education Project’s strategy was to generate positive learner-impact by supporting congregations in creating new models of Jewish education. The purpose of this study is to answer the question, what is the impact on learners of new models of congregational education?

To achieve positive learner impact, The Jewish Education Project first supported congregations’ efforts to redesign their educational models from the ground up through provision of consulting, funding, and communal professional development. Following initial redesign, the Jewish Education Project helped guide congregations’ realignment of professional development, leadership roles and responsibilities, and learning design and assessment to support new models. Congregations were also supported in efforts to change when and where learning takes place, in considering who should be regarded as a ‘learner,’ and in training educators to service each congregation’s stated goals. New models emerged as a result of this process, which can be aptly categorized as follows: Camp/Chavurah models, Shabbat models, Online/Blended learning models, Family models, Intergenerational models, and Cross-Congregational models. For the purposes of this report, the term “model” should be understood as referring to a yearlong educational program in which children (and sometimes their parents) participate.

Throughout the 6 years that The Jewish Education Project provided support to congregations for re-imagining models of Jewish education, it conducted frequent assessments of how well congregations were developing aspects of their new models. Studies evaluated leadership capacity for change, the quality of teaching and learning, the degree to which congregations’ leadership had achieved their stated goals, and whether congregations had conducted self-assessment and provided professional development opportunities. In a complementing effort, the ECE conducted a study that rated the extent to which congregations had changed when and where learning took place, identified learner and teacher profiles, and assessed whether organizational structures had developed in support of congregational goals. These research studies reflected a developmental approach to the creation of new models. They are illustrative of a fundamental belief that, in order to eventually achieve the goal of learner impact, congregations first need to build, at least to an extent, the foundations of a totally new model. A congregation, for example, with strong leadership and well-designed professional development could not expect significant impact on learners as a result of its efforts, unless it also changed the ‘when,’ ‘where’ and ‘why’ of the learning experience. In autumn 2014,

The Jewish Education Project began assessing the outcome of its efforts to ultimately achieve positive learner impact through model redesign, the results of that study can be Impact Now Study (755 downloads) .

Parents as Partners

Parents as Partners
Posted by Ben Alpert in Bold Models

By Laurie Landes, Education Director at Community Synagogue of Rye

“Why is this the first I am hearing about this?”  As a Director of Education, I cringe when I hear these words from parents. Think the sounds of scratching your nails down a chalkboard kind of cringe.  It’s an indication to me that two of our goals, communication and relationship building with parents, had fallen far short.  Teachers for the most part, just don’t feel comfortable contacting parents.  Often they wait until the breaking point to finally reach out to parents about poor behavior.  Why the wait?  Many teachers don’t like telling parents bad news about their child. Or the teacher feels that they can handle the behavior on their own.  Or teachers feel it is a negative reflection on their classroom management ability. Some cannot cope with the possibility of confrontation. “If you could engage my child he wouldn’t be bored and act out.  How come you are picking on him and not another child?  He hates Hebrew school…”    

About ten years ago our school began the RE-Imagine journey to explore what Jewish learning could look like at Community Synagogue. This was a two-year, guided process that included, parents, professional staff and lay leaders.  We went beyond the typical religious school monthly meetings consisting of event planning and policy changes. It was the first time that parents were included in a visioning process for Jewish learning.  Among the many outcomes of the Re-Imagine experience was the recognition that parents play a crucial role in transmitting Jewish learning and connection to their children.  Moving forward, we needed to value and strengthen our partnership with parents.  We launched a robust family learning program to give parents the tools needed to be Jewish role models for their children.  Participation in the Jewish Education Project’s Coalition of Innovating Congregations initiative guided us to the creation of an educational leadership team that included parents as well as a Community Learning Council that was charged with a year-long exploration of one educational cohort.  Our educational leadership moved to a new model that included and valued the voices of our parents. 10897104_779938005425460_8627248664542844683_n

The change process takes many steps.  While we now recognize parents as crucial partners in Jewish learning, our teachers needed to also value this association and then gain the tools needed to form solid relationships with the parents of their learners.  We embarked on a path of change:

  • In-service training to gain an understanding of how and why strengthening relationships with parents can impact learner outcomes in powerful ways.
  • Regular e-mail correspondence from teachers to parents giving highlights of the learning, prompts parents could use for initiating conversations with their children, resources that parents could use to extend the learning and an invitation to respond in any way.
  • Contact with individual parents to let them know about an act of kindness or an exceptional thought or contribution their child may have made. This is like putting money in the bank and watching the relationship interest grow. 
  • Training to deal with parent contact when there is a problem: “I would like to be able to partner with you to create a plan so that David will be successful..”
  • Teachers take leadership roles during family learning, helping to facilitate family discussions. This is an opportunity for in-person relationships development.

talking-to-kids-467x267We are still in the process of changing the culture of the teacher /parent relationships. Sometimes I feel like Moses when he confronted the “Golden Calf” and other times I see evidence of success.  It takes time, mentoring and monitoring, but the outcome is that if we can partner with our parents, their family Jewish journey will be a richer and more meaningful one.

Riding the wave of change in part-time Jewish education

Riding the wave of change in part-time Jewish education
Posted by Ben Alpert in Bold Models


By Rabbi Phil Warmflash and Anna Marx/JNS.org

Amid the numerous studies and analyses regarding Jewish American life, a simple fact remains: part-time Jewish education is the most popular vehicle for Jewish education in North America. Whenever and wherever parents choose Jewish education for their children, we have a communal responsibility to devote the necessary time and resources to deliver dynamic, effective learning experiences.

The only way we can do this is by creating space for conversations and knowledge-sharing around innovative new education models. That also means making the necessary investments to further models that already have proved successful.

Pictured here, the Rimon Initiative at Philadelphia’s Temple Sholom offers students project-based chugim (electives), an example cited by Rabbi Phil Warmflash and Anna Marx for an innovative new model in Jewish education. Credit: Provided photo.

Pictured here, the Rimon Initiative at Philadelphia’s Temple Sholom offers students project-based chugim (electives), an example cited by Rabbi Phil Warmflash and Anna Marx for an innovative new model in Jewish education. Credit: Provided photo.

On the ground, these new models resonate with today’s learners and their families. Such educa-tional approaches build relationships between families, integrate technology, and move the learn-ing outside of classroom walls. This is big change we’re talking about, and big change takes part-nerships and collaboration across the Jewish community—partnerships with synagogue profes-sionals and lay leaders, educational agencies, funders, and most importantly, parents.

Nancy Parkes, director of congregational learning at the Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., recently offered important recommendations to advance the congregational educational experience. We would like to call attention to two of her suggestions: “stop the negative narra-tive” and “be our partners.” Opting for part-time “supplementary” Jewish education has been a very good choice—indeed, the right choice—for thousands of families. But it’s time to tell a new story. One of experience, of possibility, of real impact. It’s time to work together.

Five Jewish education agencies from around the country—including New York, Cleveland, Hou-ston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco—are engaged in these important efforts through “Shinui: the Network for Innovation in Part-Time Education,” created with the support of the Covenant Foundation. The stories coming out of our communities are inspiring real change that other com-munities can model and adapt.

One example of an innovative model is the Rimon Initiative at Philadelphia’s Temple Shol-om, whose premise is to offer students project-based chugim (electives). One parent comments, “My son retains so much more because teachers now focus on a few core areas for a longer peri-od of time. And the fact that he can choose a chug makes for a more personal experience and gives him a chance to explore a subject that he wants to.”

In San Francisco, Shalom Explorers is a vehicle for families to form neighborhood learning groups and customize individual lesson plans. Now in its second year, the initiative has expanded to multiple sites in the Bay Area. An Explorer parent says, “Shalom Explorers provides parents with an amazing toolkit of resources to bring great lesson plans to life. We were able to select the activities and content that worked for our group of families, and the children were able to learn in fun and exciting ways—through drama, art projects, outdoor activities, and more.”

Anna Marx

Anna Marx

These stories show that part-time Jewish education presents one of the greatest opportunities to engage, inspire, and connect with families. No longer are students learning prayers and stories simply to “check them off the list.” Instead, educators across the country are wrestling with how the learning experiences they offer can best support children and their families, and make a true difference in their lives. In those precious few hours of part-time programs, teachers are parents’ partners in raising children to become mensches.

With this understanding, more and more congregations around the country are trying new models to invigorate the educational experiences they offer. The Jewish community still must do more to help this change happen in a serious, sustainable manner. Fortunately, many are answering this call, and important changes are happening in Jewish education: learning experiences that involve the entire family, deepen connections to Israel, teach Hebrew in more meaningful and relevant ways, and bring the summer camp experience into our schools.

Rabbi Phil Warmflash

Rabbi Phil Warmflash

We see these changes in the Shinui-affiliated communities, and we invite others to be a part of this change—to help build today’s narrative of part-time Jewish education. Together, we can cre-ate and sustain major changes across the country.

Rabbi Phil Warmflash is executive director of the Jewish Learning Venture in Philadelphia. Anna Marx is project director of Shinui.
This piece was originally posted on JNS.org. See full article here.

I Admit It, I Miss Camp

I Admit It, I Miss Camp
Posted by Ben Alpert in Bold Models


By Abby Knopp

I admit it.  I have missed camp these past few months since moving from the Foundation for Jewish Camp to serve as Chief Operating Officer at The Jewish Education Project.  In fact, it has caused me no small amount of angst as I have come to understand how the ground beneath me has shifted.  Merely mentioning what I do for a living no longer elicits knowing smiles accompanied by comments like, “Oh, you have my dream job,” or “I loved camp – what a great way to bring more children to Jewish life.”  Now the conversation is much more complicated.  Because now I am representing parts of the Jewish educational sector that, though widely viewed as critical to our future, very often engender skepticism.  Is the high cost of day school really correspondent to its value?  Is it actually possible to provide engaging and inspiring learning in a synagogue setting? 

This past week I crossed an important threshold into understanding what is possible in synagogue settings.

That’s because last week I was privileged to sit among a group of parents of elementary age children and listen as they spoke with profound gratitude about their new found love of Judaism and about the strong Jewish community they are building, together with other families and within their synagogue, Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City.  As participants of MASA, a congregational education model that revolves around the family as the learning unit, these parents agreed to be part of a focus group and to share their experiences.  I hadn’t expected to be moved to tears but I was. 376372_10151116853179026_1763883360_n

There were parents in the room from a variety of Jewish backgrounds.  One gentleman acknowledged that he had been raised in a home that distanced itself from Judaism even though he was sent to Hebrew school.  He has chosen to become part of MASA so that he and his son can experience Jewish growth together and so that his son can be exposed early to Judaism.  Another parent, the mother of an 11-year old girl, talked about the fact that – for her – the time of day when MASA meets (3 – 5:30 p.m. on Sunday afternoons) connects her more closely to the change of seasons and, by extension, to the Jewish calendar.  During the winter months, she and her daughter leave for home in darkness and bundled up in hats and scarves.  With each passing week, it is just a little bit lighter when they walk out of the synagogue doors and, by the end of May, she said, they’ll join friends for ice cream and look forward to several more hours of daylight.

People often refer to camp as a place where “magic” happens.  How true that is.  And last week, I was reminded about the many other places where Jewish magic can happen, too.  For this group of parents, at least, their synagogue-based communal experience brings together a “magical mix” (their terminology) of Jewish learning, friendship, family, and community.  In their own words, they feel “enveloped by Judaism” for the first time in their lives.

And all of this is happening, not at a lake, but on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Building Community at Park Avenue Synagogue

Building Community at Park Avenue Synagogue
Posted by Ben Alpert in Bold Models, Innovation, Suri Jacknis


Sarah Lipsey Brokman is an inspiring educator from Park Avenue Synagogue who actively participates in Titchadesh, a Coalition of Innovating Congregations Peer Network made up of Jewish educators who support innovative advancements in congregational learning. With the support of their peers, the Titchadesh network empowers young, dynamic professionals to experiment with fresh ideas and bring their visions to life. All of the educators in the Titchadesh network are full time educators in congregations.  This new staffing structure enables congregations to adapt new models of education – like fully engaging parents as well as children. Our network congregations now have a better capacity to launch programs that fulfill the hopes and dreams of their communities.  

 As the facilitator of Titchadesh, I have the pleasure of engaging regularly with these young leaders. Through our protocols and shared conversations, I witness the incredible work taking place at our participating sites. To widely share their successes, I recently asked participants to share their stories by submitting a blog post to InnovatingCongregations.org,  and I am so thrilled that Sarah heeded this call.

You will enjoy “meeting” Sarah in this post and you’ll gain a glimpse into the amazing model she and her colleagues have built. Here is her powerful story. 

– Suri Jacknis, Associate Director of The Coalition of Innovating Congregations


Building Community

By Sarah Lipsey Brokman with an introduction by Suri Jacknis

As a kid, I was lucky enough to grow up in a vibrant Jewish community.  I loved being in shul and spent many hours of my childhood feeling loved by my shul community.  One winter Shabbat, when I was nine years old, both of my parents went home separately after kiddush, thinking that the other parent had taken me home.  They arrived home twenty minutes later to realize that they had left me at synagogue.  My dad drove back in a panic, sure that I would be sitting outside of the building terrified that I had been left alone.  When he arrived, he couldn’t find me because I was inside playing hide and seek with all of my friends.  Since I was so comfortable at my shul, I hadn’t even noticed that my parents had left.  In the event that I had noticed my parents weren’t in the building anymore, there were a dozen other adults I could have gone to for help.  Being connected to this type of synagogue community is why I decided to become a Jewish educator.

Four years ago I began working at Park Avenue Synagogue (PAS) as one of the Assistant Directors in the Congregational School.  I walked into an environment of creative innovation and change at PAS, where the leadership challenged me to dream as big as possible.  I began to reflect on why I became a Jewish educator and I knew I needed to find a way to create that feeling of “home” for the families of PAS that I had for my home shul.  I envisioned a group of families with children in third and fourth grades who were looking for a deeper connection to both the PAS synagogue community and their own individual Jewish identities.  The goal would be to bring these families together to share their values, feelings and thoughts about raising Jewish families.  I decided to call this group, The Covenanting Group because, I wanted people to know that they were joining a group which honored their brit, their covenant, to their Jewish identities and to the PAS community.  I spent the summer reaching out to families and advertising to the whole community. By September, twelve families signed up.  Since I had already decided that I would have run the program with five families, this was a huge success!

The first Covenanting Group event took place in the sanctuary with Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove.  As Rabbi Cosgrove and I welcomed the group, a shiver of electricity ran through me.  The idea had come to fruition.  Rabbi Cosgrove asked each family to spread out in the sanctuary and discuss their goals for the year in The Covenanting Group.  The families all expressed one common value: community.  The group’s purpose became clear.  We spent the year learning together and creating a community within our already vibrant PAS community.


As we began to plan for a second cohort of The Covenanting Group, I reflected back on the pilot group’s experience.  I realized that we needed to increase the time spent doing Jewish learning – so we partnered with ShalomLearning and made once-a-month online learning part of The Covenanting Group experience.  The communal programming was centered on Shabbat and holidays, a decision which helped our group connect to the Jewish calendar in a more meaningful way.  The biggest learning from that first year was the recognition that the group needed an immersive experience to culminate the year.

This capstone experience was a retreat that occurred in April filled with learning, food and fun.  The adults were able to schmooze, while the kids played and intensified their already strong friendships.  During one activity, the families created a “values map” using strips of paper with 15 different Jewish values, which each family ordered according to the importance in their family’s life.  These conversations were by no means easy, but the buzz of immersive family learning was one I had never experienced before.  After the families finished working with their own values maps, each family shared their map with another family.  I watched as a major goal of The Covenanting Group came to life: families sharing their Jewish values with one another. Since we grappled with big questions of Jewish identity, values and meaning, the families were now able share their answers with each other, in hopes of inspiring more meaningful Jewish engagement as a community.

As I work with the 21 families in the third cohort of The Covenanting Group, I remember being a 9 year old child playing in shul.  Creating a space within the synagogue community to play, learn and connect is a necessary component of Jewish life.  As we look to find ways to keep Jews involved in synagogue and communal life, these connections are at the core.   Helping people connect to one another on a deep Jewish level is the most rewarding and important thing I have done thus far in my career.  This group is a vehicle for connection, a way for families to find “home” at PAS.

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