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Director's View | Article

Nov 2, 2012, By Harlene Winnick Appelman

Striving for Accessible and Relevant Jewish Education


For the past several summers, sports, crafts and music have taken their place next to cooking, dancing and playing games for dozens of young children at Camp Nitzan in Teaneck, N.J.

There’s been another element, too, and that is Hebrew-language instruction and practice folded into the general cacophony of summer fun.

Valuable in and of itself, and as a bridge between school years, Hebrew immersion at Camp Nitzan and at other Jewish camps popping up across the country is emblematic of trends and changes across the spectrum of Jewish education. That is, making it accessible, fluid and relevant in the moment.

Longstanding models of Jewish supplementary and weekend education programs are being challenged by enormous shifts in interests, availability and ways of acquiring knowledge, and the changing nature of the Jewish family.

Jewish education is no longer a singular concept. It is plural and pluralistic. It is Jewish educations.

Champions of Jewish education—whether it is complimentary education, day school education, camp or travel experiences, or characterized as Reform, Conservative or Orthodox—must acknowledge that every model is of consequence and is part of a greater whole.

While nationally focused models are valuable, education is local and Jewish education is even more local.

New structures are emerging in abundance outside or alongside traditional congregational models as this new reality takes hold. But why?

I suspect that young parents and professionals driving these emerging models are products of Jewish education, which enabled them to dream of alternatives. New ideas generally emerge from a solid foundation.

The Covenant Foundation recently gathered representatives from alternative startup models from across North America to learn about what creates and sustains these new educational models.

What we learned is that people learn things when they are exposed to them regularly, frequently and intensely. And they learn with greater depth when information is relevant, or there is an immediate need to know.

That’s why, for example, really good gaming works. People who like a game generally play it frequently and engage in it intensely. They acquire the skills they need to advance to the next level, and they recruit friends to participate.

One need only look at the afikomen search during Passover seders to understand that one of the most pivotal educational moments of the year not only endorses—but also insists—on the power of the game. Our most venerated sages clearly understood the need to engage people where they are.

Applying these common characteristics to supplemental Jewish education makes sense. Along with engaging programming, giving students the opportunity to attend between two and five days a week—with exciting digital engagement beyond the classroom hours—prevents conversations and participation from stalling.

And when organizations offer licensed childcare and a variety of special-interest activities, such as learning through the arts, the discussion gets even more exciting, increasing the desire to participate.

Active parent participation is also critical. The usual hard sell for innovative programs is minimized or disappears as parents recruit others to join a learning community. Engaged and involved parents are a natural focus group to sustain and grow innovative Jewish programming.

And we must take the developmental stage of the whole family into consideration. One size doesn’t fit all, but when families become engaged, they tend to recruit others and build community.

Interestingly, at a time when Hebrew language is out of favor, many emerging groups are committed to Hebrew-language programming. So Hebrew summer day camps—such as Camp Nitzan—are being embraced as exciting and worthwhile.

If one pushes this envelope even further, Hebrew-immersive, early childhood education programs would be a tremendous addition to these models. Children would emerge from their early childhood and early elementary experiences having broken through the language barrier that seems to be the most difficult and uninteresting part of the “Hebrew school challenge.”

The combination of accessible afterschool educational opportunities, Hebrew-immersion summer day camps and early childhood Hebrew programs might yield light at the end of this tunnel.

There are also common challenges: recruiting outstanding teachers or madrichim, building meaningful and effective curriculum or programming and finding ways to pay for it all. But nothing is a “given” and there are no sacred cows.

Through well-planned face-to-face experiences and meaningful in-person dialogue, and by harnessing digital technology with exciting content, families will have both the choice and opportunity to participate in a community that makes sense for their lifestyles and developmental stages.

This approach provides important educational standards—frequency, intensity, constancy, and relevance—while fulfilling a need that preserves the cultural and traditional values that form the basis and continuity of our community.

Harlene Winnick Appelman
Executive Director

This column appeared in The New York Jewish Week on November 2, 2012

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