Yesterday was my birthday, and as the years race by, my birthday always puts me in a contemplative mood. I’ve been thinking hard lately about our community’s commitment to Jewish education. Atlanta’s formal Jewish education landscape is remarkable with a range of excellent Jewish day schools and preschools, 40+ synagogues, learning opportunities at the MJCCA, organizations like Limmud, and one of the largest Melton School programs in the nation. Our informal Jewish learning landscape is also impressive, with JumpSpark Teen, Jewish day camps, overnight camps, PJ Library, Jewish Kids Groups, Hillels, BBYO, Birthright Israel, Jewish Student Union and more.
But inevitably I start to think about the thousands of Atlantans who identify Jewishly yet fall outside the education mainstream. They’re missing out on so much — and worse, they don’t even know what they’re missing! Synagogues, the MJCCA, and Jewish camp are not part of their Jewish experience, and their estrangement from Jewish learning makes them feel like strangers. Tragically, many don’t believe they’re “Jewish” enough to be accepted as learners. As a tradition that prizes learning and commands us to welcome the stranger, we have to do better!
I believe that our Jewish ecosystem gets exponentially stronger when Jewish knowledge increases. So I have to ask, what would happen if Atlanta leveraged its strengths, truly doubled down on Jewish education and made it a priority? How can we improve the quality and the delivery of Jewish education, both in congregational and non-congregational settings? (By the way, I also believe we need to tell a better story about the good things that are already happening here).
More pointedly, how can we re-imagine Jewish education for those who have not been exposed to it? How can we make after school Jewish education more compelling for those who have tried it and fallen away? And what can we learn from successful church communities that use mid-week family experiences (and serve dinner!) to educate and engage?
Looking inside our own ecosystem, what role can our day schools, camps and the MJCCA play to meet new learners where they are? What would immersive Family Camp experiences, with opportunities for family story-telling, look like? How can we create a through-line that connects Jewish education and experiences from pre-school through afterschool, and from camp to teen? These are some of the provocative questions we’re asking.
David Bryfman is a thought leader in Jewish education who has really shaped my thinking. He says that for Jewish education to be successful, it needs to have, at its core, a mission to make people happy. I love and live by that idea. If there isn’t joy in Jewish learning, it will not stick.
Right now at Federation we’re beginning to explore some of these ideas and dream about how we might catalyze new energy around Jewish education in Atlanta. We’re meeting with experts in education around the country to learn as much as we can about educational innovation. I’ll keep you posted on our thinking and our progress. And if you have a great idea that could expand our thinking and bring joy to Jewish learning, I hope you’ll give me a call.