Theres a place for every child in Jewish education

“If you cannot accept this principle, you can’t consider yourself a Jew,” my rabbi told me.

I was 15 years old, in Hebrew high. I had just questioned a core tenet of Jewish faith, and my rabbi’s response was, in essence, “Get lost.”

I never returned to Hebrew high. I knew there was no place for me in his class. But was my rabbi right? Was there no room for me in Judaism?

I found my niche by connecting to Israel, making meaningful relationships with other Jews near and far, and discovering in Judaism a blueprint for living my life.

But how many young people experience, as I did, a Judaism that appears inhospitable to questioning or to diversity of thought and practice?

The importance of Jewish education is well understood: “Learning, learning, learning — that is the secret of Jewish survival,” said the great Jewish thinker Ahad Ha’Am.

The Bay Area Jewish community’s achievements in expanding Jewish educational options are impressive.

There are 11 Jewish day schools; an array of informal Jewish experiences, including summer camps and Israel trips; diverse teen and adult learning opportunities; and some exciting new innovations involving family education, retreats and service learning.

Never before have we had so many Jewish learning options available to meet such a variety of interests and needs.

Yet, growing numbers of Jewish youth receive little or no Jewish education. For those who do, some students and parents hold synagogue-based schools in low esteem. There is consistent pressure to reduce hours of instruction, and many students drop out of formal Jewish education at age 13.

A century ago, the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig called for a new approach to Jewish education that “no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way round: from life … back to the Torah.”

Rosenzweig understood that one must reach modern Jews where they are and create learning relevant to their lives. In the words of a local student: “I want to learn about why Judaism is so important for me today, not just for the Maccabees.”

Rosenzweig’s guidance is helpful as we adjust our approach to effectively reach the next generation of Bay Area Jews. With his perspective in mind, let’s consider a few guiding principles to addressing this educational challenge:

• Create “life-centered Jewish education” (Jewish learning must be relevant to students’ concerns and be grounded in experience).

• Build a connection to Judaism through social interaction and relationships — between student and teacher (“The teacher is the text students never forget,” said Abraham Joshua Heschel), among students, and with the wider Jewish world.

• Adopt a broad approach recognizing myriad ways that Jews connect to Judaism.

• Integrate classroom instruction with meaningful and transformative Jewish experiences.

New innovations are employing these principles with great hope for success.

One such initiative is NESS (Nurturing Excellence in Synagogue Schools), a synagogue school improvement program. Piloted in Philadelphia, NESS (“miracle” in Hebrew) helps congregational schools with an intensive makeover — offering customized and multifaceted tools, including professional development for teachers, curriculum development and family education.

The initiative has achieved tremendous success in Philadelphia. Synagogues report rejuvenated education programs, students and parents report greater satisfaction, and students are re-enrolling in Hebrew high in record numbers. The Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco, with funding support from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education, will implement NESS at local schools this fall.

Also, the Israel Education Initiative, a partnership between the JCF-sponsored Israel Center and the BJE is building bridges at day schools between our students and Israeli students through “school-twinnings.” These twinning programs create meaningful connections to Israel among the school communities by building relationships and integrating relationship-building with educational content.

Finally, the Jewish Community Federation, with the support of local funders, has launched an ambitious initiative to expand Jewish early childhood education — recognizing that preschools can serve as a gateway to Jewish life for young families.

Our greatest obstacle is despair — that Jewish education is failing or that we cannot muster the resources to make it succeed. This view is inaccurate and self-defeating. These are exciting times, as we improve Jewish education and extend Jewish learning to more Jews.

We can’t afford to emulate the approach of the rabbi who suggested there was no place for me in Judaism. Our goals must be to offer a meaningful education to those currently engaged, and to reach out to those who are not engaged and offer them a compelling path to learning and involvement.

I made it back from the alienation of my youth to Jewish involvement thanks to finding relationships that connected me to a sense of Jewish peoplehood, understanding that the Jewish “tent” is broad enough to include me, and being exposed to Jewish learning that offered meaning to my life.

If we employ those same principles in our educational strategy, we can ensure that the next generation of Jews can carve their niche in the Jewish world.

David Waksberg is the executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education.

David Waksberg

David Waksberg is the CEO of S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks.