Remaking Religious School: Look Before You Leap

Jim Rogozen - low resBy Rabbi Jim Rogozen

Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare. – Japanese Proverb

In my new position at United Synagogue I have been learning about many innovative programs designed to make the experience of religious school more exciting and engaging. There are some very creative and bold people in the field, and I am inspired by their energy and commitment.

The lament/demand that “synagogue education must change!” is an ongoing phenomenon. So too is the reality that many initiatives and innovations fizzle, or fail outright. Some of these failures are due to the difficulty of sustaining innovation; some of them simply run out of funding. The call for yet another round of new programs has gone out, and Jewish publishers and organizations are answering that call. It seems to me, however, that in our efforts to launch new programs at the synagogue level something is often missing: a comprehensive and aligned organizational mission and vision.

The realities of synagogue life these days dictate a fast-tracked decision making process. It is very tempting, therefore, to latch onto the latest program or innovation and believe that the “new model” will transform student learning, if not the congregation as a whole. While there is pressure to change and break the mold there needs to be equal importance given to mission and vision.

As we read in the Lecha Dodi prayer on Friday night: Sof ma’aseh b’mach’shava t’chila – the right action depends on the correct (up front) thinking and planning.

Whether it’s a new blended learning platform, the desire to bring camp to religious school, or ways to involve parents, I believe that synagogue leaders need to take a step back and look at their education program within the larger organizational context of the kehilla before making changes. If this part of the planning process is ignored, the innovations being considered may never bear fruit.

One way to get started on the path toward successful educational transformation is to take the following “institutional readiness” questionnaire:

One: Is our education program embedded in our congregation’s overall mission and vision? What is our kehilla all about? What do we care about? What are we trying to accomplish by being here? How do children and family journeys fit in here? What do children need to know, and what should they be able to do, in order to be part of this kehilla as they grow up?

Two: Is our congregation’s mission and vision expressed in a strategic plan, and, just as important, a financial strategic plan? What are our goals? Are they realistic? Are they measureable? How will we go about accomplishing those goals? Does the budget for each department in the congregation reflect the mission, vision and strategic goals of our kehilla?

[Note: Conservative congregations who want to learn more about the first two topics can take part in USCJ’s highly successful Sulam programs.]

Three: Are our programming, governance, planning and culture “aligned”? Does everything that happens in our shul serve our core documents and commitments? Does every key player have our vision in front of them and know how their area of function connects to that big picture? Are we able to say “no” to program ideas and expenditures that don’t fit into our plan? Are job descriptions (and evaluations) connected in measurable ways to our mission, vision, and goals?

Four: Is our synagogue culture able to sustain change, experimentation, failure, reflective reappraisal? Can we have productive dialogues about what is and isn’t working? Are we able to measure our inputs and outcomes objectively? Is our budget supportive of educators who want to learn about and try new things? Do we communicate with, and involve, all of our stakeholders on a regular basis? Does the education program have investors/advocates/champions on the synagogue board, and among the clergy?

Five: Do we see education as a transformative, future-oriented, core element in our kehilla? Does our budget encourage excellence in our education program? Is our curriculum connected to ongoing congregational life?  Do children and teens feel “needed” by our kehilla (now and in the future)? Do children see adults engaged in Jewish learning?

The creative, disruptive innovators among us are busy cultivating new seeds for Jewish Education. If they don’t have good soil in which to plant these seeds, we will see another crop of educational programs wither, further challenging the viability of our congregations. But if our kehillot embrace, and apply, the best practices of the non-profit organizational world to their congregations, Jewish education will not only be successful, it will transform the Jewish community.


Rabbi Jim Rogozen is Chief Learning Officer of United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism.



One thought on “Remaking Religious School: Look Before You Leap

  1. Richard Plotzker

    One of the finest analyses of Conservative Judaism’s Achilles Heel, the congregational school. This has been one of my most disheartening experiences both as a parent and as VP Education who struggled with an ultimately unsuccessful merger of our Traditional Congregation’s Hebrew School with that of the USCJ affiliate nearby. It really does reflect congregational values. Our school was small, theirs 2-3 times ours. Both congregations had a financial interest in resource sharing. While the kids were not very different at Bar Mitzvah, they seemed to separate when they shared classes at the community Hebrew High School where our kids mastered the basic literacy skills more effectively and could therefore derive more benefit from the more advanced community offerings. The cultures just couldn’t mesh. There were too many sacred cows that needed to be schected before their people could transform from people with ethnicity effectively imprinted upon them to Jews who could derive something of more lasting value than a three month project exploring their genealogy to the neglect of history or Chumash. And the two rabbis did not want to incur the disapproval of the congregants as two popular principals figuratively scratched each others eyes out for two years.

    As we went our own ways, USCJ came out with their Framework for Excellence Program, which was a slight improvement over each principal did that which was right in her own eyes, leaving plenty of options for each congregation. Somebody gave me a copy, maybe about a hundred pages long, dropped off at my house to be mastered an hour before the committee meeting to discuss it. Eventually I did read it. I even got to chat about it with a visitor brought to the community in his capacity of member of the committee that created it. He gave his presentation, then I approached him at kiddush. He seemed a little put off that somebody in the room not involved in the project read it and realized that they intentionally neglected the part about assessing what the kids actually achieved.

    And all this happened with a Department of Education occupying space at 155 Fifth Avenue.

    Amid this, there are places in the United Synagogue world, such as my childhood shul which is no more, where the Rabbi and baalebatim take a real interest in having their young people learn the basics of siddur, Torah, kashrut, shabbos, milestones and festivals. It just has not been consistently distributed among the member congregations or imposed upon people as a non-negotiable standard.

    As my own professional training evolved nobody at my medical school asked if I wanted to take two months of psychiatry or gyn and nobody in my residency program asked if I wanted to be on call in the ICU. Those are just the things that you needed to do to acquire proficiency. They are not always voluntary.


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