Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Oh dear, what is happening to our Jewish Educational Institutions?

Oh dear, what is happening to our Jewish Educational Institutions?

I have worked in the field of Jewish Education for thirty five years. I have seen so many developments during that time; for a long time, many of these changes were positive and exciting. When I began my position as Educational/Youth Director for a large synagogue early in my career thirty years ago, I promised myself that I would create a meaningful viable Jewish community and the experiences that the students, teachers, family and all vested members would have within that community that I would work hard to facilitate would be different … different from the staid, programmed experience I had experienced in my younger years – you know the days when you walked in the house with the SAME book that your mother used in Hebrew school and this was a GOOD thing! I do feel that I was successful and still run into people from that chapter of my life, including the friendships I have maintained since then, and we speak with love and fond memories of that time. I was feeling good as I moved from that experience on to others and really was heartened by the fact that I am my colleagues were making profound differences in the field of Jewish education – in Central Agencies, afternoon school systems, day schools, formal and informal settings, and so forth.

Those were also the years of a wonderful organization called the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE), which became, among other things, the annual watering hole for creative Jewish educators, those who were challenging boundaries and barriers in everything from how one teaches and transmits information to the very definitions of what it means to be Jewish, observant and so many other things. Together, we shared our dreams and hopes for our communities in our fishbowl on random university campuses in this country as well as Israel and during the year, we tried to actualize some of those dreams and hopes – in our various settings in all our denominational groupings. These were indeed heady and exciting times for a Jewish educator that wanted to make a profound difference in the larger world of Jewish education, and then….

Here I sit, in 2010, disillusioned and extremely disappointed. Several of my wonderful colleagues – some of the most creative, committed Jews and passionate people I have ever met – are no longer in the ranks of Jewish education. Others languish in institutions that no longer dream and move towards a vision – not the way we used to. Too often, this profession and the communities that support it have eaten up their best and thrown them to the curb. How sad and depressing. CAJE ran its course for many reasons though there are a few hearty souls trying to restart it. I do have some intermittent contact with wonderful colleagues from different settings in which we meet – often in Israel or as parents of children that are friends of my children and choose and go to the same University communities where committed Jewish kids feel comfortable and validated. But we all share a feeling of the passing of an era. Yes, to be sure, there are wonderful schools out there, fabulous communities to be found, and people who are still excited about what they are doing…. But, the reality is that many of the communities in which I have worked as a consultant through the years have lost their own dreams and sense of future vision. I definitely see and feel this where I live.

In my own larger Jewish community in which three of our four children went through the day schools that we have and graduated, our fourth child, a wonderful, insightful, Jewishly committed 14 year old that exudes a sense of integrity and respect, attends public school due to the fact that he needs to be in an institution in which people treat each other with respect and the vision is shared, and he and those with whom he learns as well as those that teach and lead them have a sense in which direction they are moving. Sadly, we had to pull him out of day schools for reasons of compromised personal safety, not even considering what were increasing profound academic concerns.

I note that Financial Managers, COO’s and CEO’s are now more important in our educational institutions than seasoned, capable and experienced Jewish educators in too many cases. I have often heard statements to the effect that “I do not understand. This school used to have a vision and a soul. Now it is a business, one that is supposed to make money.” A business that is supposed to make money?! What happened to the days when our schools and educational institutions were known to be our loss leaders in the supermarket of Jewish agencies and institutions? This was our investment in our future – created an educated, excited, able Jewish population and they WILL be our wonderful leaders of tomorrow. The buildings may not have been the best and various aspects of the institution not state-of-the-art, but the places in which such learning occurred were often happy, soulful and nurturing venues. In the past year and a half, so many day schools have closed, programs that were dedicated to the professional enrichment of seasoned educators terminated, tuitions for day school education are now being compared to “other private schools in the area” and many families are forced out of this option, afternoon programs are more watered down than ever, there are less vehicles for shared visioning, and there are lots of granted dollars being spent on….., well, state-of-the-art technology and beautiful buildings and I am not sure what, too often. What has happened?

In our Orthodox community as is the case elsewhere, we have many more public school families than one might expect. Families acknowledge having to compromise on many things they believe (not to mention choking their family budget considerably) and “close their eyes” so that they can send their children to day school, and in these schools there are behaviors and occurrences that would NEVER be acceptable on any level in my son’s public school (back to that matter of personal safety).

What is wrong with this picture? Someone might say it is a personal reaction (even ranting) BUT I am most certainly not the only one with this story. None of my children will even consider going into Jewish education as a profession – the work which I felt so passionately about for so long. Years ago, I was so in love with my work, I desperately wanted at least one of them to continue and move into this path. Now, in 2010, I no longer feel this way. Some time ago, an older and beloved colleague once said to me, “I do not envy you, Sunnie. This was a great profession for me; so much is changing I am not sure what it will be for you.” For many years I disagreed respectfully with her as I was so excited and invigorated by my work. Now, I think she was prophetic. How sad!

1 comment:

  1. How sad indeed. Considering the exciting new directions being forged in the Jewish world, like the growth of Jewish social action initiatives, independent minyanim, and lay-led learning events, it is extremely unfortunate that some communities have not allowed THAT energy to fuel the foundation of their schools. But if other Jewish educators who feel the way you do would come together to forge new directions of their own, maybe the excitement and hope you felt years ago, could be restored.