Jewish Education and Engagement Needs to Get its Chalutz (Pioneer) Game On

In 1988, a group of American Jewish educational leaders, working in tandem with a group of Israeli leaders, took a huge gamble. Envisioning a time at which the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel would be a faint memory, they launched what in today’s world would be referred to as a “start-up initiative” and the March of the Living was born. The American Jewish educators who stuck their necks out and innovated (nobody was using that terminology back then) risked a great deal. Some put their organizations in debt. Some took so many staff that they practically shuttered their offices for months at a time. Some of those pioneers are retired. Some are even deceased. Yet, the traction was such that this educational program continues to thrive and to evolve 28 years later, and impacts thousand of American Jewish teens annually.

Other pioneers of that era whose efforts continue to pay off include those who founded Alexander Muss High School in Israel and more recently Birthright Israel. Experiment in Congregational Education is another innovation whose work, while very different today, spawned new approaches.

Surprisingly though, in our day, when innovation is the catchword in our society as a whole, our communities are uneven in taking calculated risks to try to change outcomes [i.e., if you do things the way you’ve always done them, you’ll get the results you’ve always gotten].  Some communities have gone all out to back new initiatives in congregational learning. Some (including my own) are supporting blended learning through initiatives like Shalom Learning. Some (again including my own) are moving from tired models of teen education and engagement to exciting, hands-on models that include Community Internships, Jewish Service Learning, Jewish Teen Philanthropy, Jewish Environmental Learning and more.

At the same time, there are those communities that have been slower to invest in new approaches, preferring safe ground even if numbers decline.

We as a Jewish educational community need to look for and invest in the next big things. Innovative approaches will look different from the chalutzim of the March of the Living or High School in Israel. This generation of chalutzim are likely to be much more local and are as likely to be independent entrepreneurs as they are to be the “establishment” organizations that dived into the March in the 80’s. But our establishment (and yes, I am a proud leader of an establishment organization) needs to perform an act of tzimtzum (to borrow the Kabbalistic term), retracting to give room for new entrepreneurs with experimental ideas, to gather momentum and to create impact. We need to be bold and brave enough to make our institutions into laboratories in which new ways of educating are tested and proved.

The future of Jewish education and engagement depends on it.


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