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The new normal of Jewish education and engagement

What will emerge will be organizations with solid foundations, and strong lay and professional leadership capable of creating new and innovative ways to engage the community.

Students at the Rashi School thanking their teachers during an online Zoom class. Source: The Rashi School via Facebook.
Students at the Rashi School thanking their teachers during an online Zoom class. Source: The Rashi School via Facebook.
David Bryfman
David Bryfman

Many discussions taking place right now about a “new normal” for Jewish education and engagement that assumes that the organizational infrastructure of the North American Jewish community will look very different on the other side of the global coronavirus pandemic. I agree that the Jewish community will look vastly different in the years to come. But here’s the thing—it was always going to, and it always needed to, change.

Most of the issues that the Jewish education and engagement world are dealing with amid the COVID-19 crisis are not new. While the pandemic may have exacerbated certain communal deficiencies and hastened the speed at which we need to change, there has been ample evidence for years that the Jewish community of tomorrow cannot, should not and will not look like the Jewish community of today.

The current communal infrastructure grew at a very rapid rate in the early part of this century with a plethora of new organizations emerging. Even in the aftermath of the global economic downturn in 2009, several success stories emerged. But there was also a long list of organizations that did not survive.

Of those particularly successful organizations, many shared some common characteristics—a charismatic founder, a deep understanding of new social media and a clear understanding of the millennial marketplace, to name a few. What many of these startups also shared was a search for dollars, more often than not from the same philanthropic sources.

This brings us to an era with economic forces that will dictate what the Jewish education enterprise will look like post-pandemic. But the purview of funders need not be the only factor that determines organizational outcomes. Moreover, I have often found a willingness of philanthropic partners, including foundations, federations and individual donors, to work with partners on the ground to help develop new realities together.

Even amid the uncertainty, some key observations are emerging that can greatly inform what Jewish education and engagement will look like on the other side. Given these undertakings, the challenge is to build towards such certainties with intentionality, rather than allowing external forces to dictate the evolving situation.

Observation #1: COVID has shined an even brighter light on the lack of diversity, equity and inclusion within the Jewish community. For example, some modes of Jewish education have always been expensive, and now many of them are really, really expensive and out of reach for even more families. Jewish education has often failed to be inclusive of marginalized segments of the entire community, and it is even more obvious that many Jews do not feel at home or comfortable in many existing settings. Jewish education offers many opportunities for already committed and literate Jews to advance their learning, but by in large continues to fail to offer meaningful and relevant learning for the 93 percent who are proud of being Jewish.

Observation #2: What the Jewish community is not lacking right now is an absence of programs and initiatives. Yet, particularly in Jewish education, we still need a greater variety of these offerings. They often look the same and are aimed at reaching similar audiences—or put another way, the Jewish community in North America has become increasingly good and comfortable in offering opportunities to those who are already bought in, affiliated and adhere to the conventional understandings of Jewish thought and practice. We need to continue to move beyond the inner circles of engagement and develop more opportunities to connect with those who indicate a desire to be involved with their heritage, but have not yet found a place that truly meets them where they’re at.

Observation #3: The Jewish communal infrastructure will need to downsize in the aftermath of COVID-19, if for no other reason than because the philanthropic community cannot afford to sustain the multitude of smaller organizations that emerged in the early part of the 20th century. This does not mean that the many niche value propositions are no longer needed; most likely, these specific areas of focus will be absorbed by other organizations because it makes economic sense. This will also formally bring to an end the artificial distinction between cool startups that are nimble and innovative, and legacy startups that are stodgy and incapable of change. What will emerge will be organizations with solid foundations, and strong lay and professional leadership capable of creating new and innovative ways to engage the community, and have viable business models that allow their innovations to scale and spread at an effective rate.

When we begin to talk about a new normal—and the underlying, adaptive soul-searching and work that needs to be done—we must grapple with the much deeper-seated issues that these observations elicit within each of us. As much as those of us embedded within the current community might yearn for a return to the days of old, the writing is on the wall that the future will not look anything like what we had grown so accustomed to.

David Bryfman is CEO of the Jewish Education Project. He hosts the livecast Adapting: The Future of Jewish Education.

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