Jewish educators call for information clearinghouse

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Some 60 researchers and educators at the largest Conference on Research in Jewish Education ever met at Stanford University last month to share the latest in Jewish thought and learning –but most of their lessons may never reach classrooms.

The reason for this grim prognosis, educators and researchers admit, is that while more and more attention is being focused on Jewish education, there is no single source to hand down to classrooms "what really works" — what students retain.

"The truth is, there is no good national clearinghouse for ideas," said Vicky Kelman, director of the family education project at the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education and a presenter at the Stanford conference.

Kelman and others hope the Information Superhighway could be, at least in part, the solution.

"Imagine if I could go online with questions like, `Who has a unit for X?' Or, `What's the best family trip to Israel?'" Kelman said. That way, educators would realize "they don't have to start from scratch."

An online educator's service could, for instance, bring information presented at the Stanford conference to those unable to attend.

Educators could choose to learn more about Michigan State University Professor Sharon Feiman-Nemser's volunteer-teaching model that cuts teaching budgets, trains quality teachers and upgrades congregational activities. They could hook into University of Connecticut's Arnold Dashefsky report on the successes and failures of transferring the Detroit-based Jewish Education For Families (JEFF) program to New Jersey.

Such a medium could lend teachers opportunities similar to those the conference provided.

Lisa Langer, program coordinator of the Koret Synagogue Iniatiative, which is aimed at enticing Jews into greater synagogue participation at Los Altos' Congregation Beth Am, said information presented at the conference partly helped alleviate feelings of isolation.

"I'm finding out others are doing what I'm doing and it helps me to better understand the importance and impact of programs on the greater community," she said. "It's helpful to know other research and types of projects that are happening."

Yet, for the most part, projects and concepts presented at the conference will most likely travel only as far as the participants themselves. "Hannah the Hebrew Teacher" in Dubuque, Iowa, isn't going to reap the benefits of a Michigan congregation, or a New Jersey one. Or if she does, it will be in a very watered-down form.

So congregations and day schools constantly reinvent the wheel, oblivious that the very programs they are creating are often already succeeding elsewhere.

"These research studies, for the most part, haven't been made public. So the run-of-the-mill Hebrew school Joe isn't ever going to see it. He's off the dissemination track," explained Joel Grishaver, head of Los Angeles-based Torah Aura Productions, a leading creative education publisher.

Professor Michael Zeldin of L.A.'s Hebrew Union College agrees. In response to the Feiman-Nemser's model project, Zeldin said the real challenge is "how to get more people eavesdropping on the conversation. It's not a matter of replication, but how to generalize principals and disseminate information."

Currently, the best forum for this type of dialogue is the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE), said Grishaver, who did not attend the Network Research Conference this year.

CAJE, now in its twentieth year and attracting about 2,000 educators from around the world to its annual conferences, is not ideal, Grishaver said. Still, he said, "It's by far the best thing going."

In addition to CAJE and the Network for Research, educators like Grishaver turn to the Whizin Institute for Family Learning, the National Association of Temple Educators, the Jewish Educators' Association and publications like the "Journal of Religious Education," "Haddassah Magazine" and "Reform Judaism."

These vehicles are aimed at either a movement or a type of education. The problem is that some projects and research efforts fall through the cracks.

"We've been struggling for years with the question of diffusion and dissemination. It's like the chicken and the egg. There's a limited number of people in Jewish education to bring this information to the field," said Leora Isaacs, of the New York-based Jewish Education Service of North America and one of the Stanford conference's organizers.

Currently, only a limited number of studies and theses do make their way onto the infobahn. At this point computers have not yet filled the need for a Jewish education clearinghouse.

"There's an informal Torah network disseminated through word of mouth at CAJE and Whizin" and elsewhere, Kelman said. "But there are few anthologies. All we've got is everyone's personal file cabinets busting with paper scraps, notes and ideas.

Bob Sherman, BJE executive director, is looking toward a kind of online service that would allow educators "to know what others are doing, figure out how it would and would not apply to different congregations, schools and regions and have some data with which to think about it.

"Jewish education is a small world, and we need to connect it," he said.