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Innovation in Jewish Education – “Investing in the Jewish Future”

Published in The Jewish Press, June 1, 2016

by Rachel Moore

For years, Jewish education has been searching for a means to inspire, to innovate, and redefine the standard curriculum to engage the next generation of Jews.

Schools across the Jewish spectrum have received constant pressure to re-package and teach classic content in a style that speaks to the students. The fast-pace of today’s technology is forcing educators and the institutions they represent to connect, and to remain relevant.

There are sparks of a burgeoning renaissance in the field of Jewish education. Among the leaders in the groundbreaking initiative are Yeshiva University, who has begun to offer an Experiential Education Certificate to offer Jewish leaders a new set of tools with which to transform teaching material. The premise of the certificate is to encourage the educator to tap into creative, less formal teaching styles that can present the materials in a new light.

The Mayberg Family Foundation is hosting this week (June 1-2) its annual Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC) retreat. In contrast to the slow process of traditional funding, the Mayberg innovation challenge more closely resembles a Jewish education version of a “pitch night.” At the retreat, finalists have 12 minutes to pitch their projects to a panel of judges, (think “Shark Tank”), who have then discuss and question them. All participants and audience members are invited to access all elements of the grant applications in Mayberg’s Guidebook app, opening the process to the public. Winners will receive notice and a $50,000 grant later this month. Manette Mayberg, trustee of the foundation, views their refreshing funding style as “Investing in the Jewish future.”

This year’s Lead Facilitator at the retreat is Aryeh Ben David, an innovator in education, founder of Ayeka and their “Soulful Education” method. The Soulful Education methodology works with existing schools’ educators and curriculum, but with a new approach to both that changes the emphasis of Judaic Studies from amassing knowledge to processing information for personal transformation and growth.

The argument made is that the innovation needed in Jewish Education is to replace the traditional information accumulation model with one that uses Jewish wisdom as a means to personalization and internalization for teacher and students alike.

The organization’s has recently received grants for the coming school year from The Avichai Foundation, Lippman-Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, and The Kohelet Foundation for a “start up” program that will provide training, mentoring and ongoing work with 18 faculty members from three Day Schools for an extensive 10-month training period.

“Ayeka isn’t changing the what or the who so much, but rather the how. Jewish educators are being presented with an opportunity to transform the way we reach Jewish learners, not just through conveying information, but by having the students personalize their learning and bring it into their lives.” Ayeka sees its paradigm shifting, unapologetically open approach as a necessary step for improving Jewish education.

While Mayberg places the responsibility on the schools to work and change from within, some more grassroot, independent projects are approaching Jewish education from the perspective of an outsider or consultant.

Shinui is a network of six organizations focused on innovation in the “part time” education sector, such as Sunday school, JCCs, adult education classes and more. While they are not dealing with full time day school, they are challenging boundaries in the non-orthodox world. Collaboration based, they are using platforms of engagement to effect 6 different geographical areas, from Houston to San Francisco.

Kevah, a self-described DIY project, invests in a ground-up educational group. To start a new chapter, a local host convenes a group of learners interested in a certain topic, and then Kevah provides them with an educator, administrative platform, and a curriculum which matches their style. It is up to the group to continue their learning. Their method banks on group dynamics and commitment to make learning a source of enrichment rather than a chore.

When seeking answers to the need for innovation in traditional learning, pioneers are finding communities and learners most responsive when they educate and inspire the personal and spiritual connections each individual forms with Judaism. Recognizing the imperative of continuing Jewish life, they are pushing into the world of the informal and spiritual realms, emphasizing fresh approaches in an effort to disrupt the status quo and keep the Jewish future bright.