Forging a Path


The term “thriving” has begun to sweep through the Jewish community. This concept is a paradox in that it is both a complete paradigm shift and also already deeply embedded in Jewish education.  

For a number of years now, I have had the pleasure of meeting with educators and communal leaders across North America to consider the future of Jewish education. Before I even heard the term “thriving,” I was sharing related ideas. I have discussed the “big scary world” our children are growing up in and the resources Judaism has to prepare them to walk tall and proud through it. I have spoken about how Judaism has made my life and so many lives I know better, more full, and more meaningful. I have shared visions of Jewish educational programs that focus on creating young people who have strong moral compasses, sharp critical thinking skills, and empathy for fellow human beings.

I have shared these thoughts in different settings with different sets of leaders in small and large groups, in person and in writing. I have yet to hear a person reject these thoughts. Of course not. It’s why we’re in this business. It is the purpose of what we all do. Synagogue educators, most of all, have nodded with great enthusiasm when I’ve spoken these words. They have been the ones, with tears in their eyes, who have thanked me for speaking what they know to be true. And that is how I know that these concepts are already embedded in Jewish education and that they are very close to the hearts of our educators. These ideas are familiar and powerful.

And yet, at the very same time, when we take a closer look at the educational programs in synagogues (“religious schools”), we see that they are still far from achieving these goals. The primary achievements of these programs remain preparation for b’nei mitzvah, much to the chagrin of many educators and clergy. Resting firmly in organizations whose business models depend on a steady influx of members, the educational programs are seen as critical sources of income. Their success continues to be measured by the number of synagogue members they attract and retain. I have been approached by countless synagogue leaders interested in transforming their educational models so that they can attract more young families. I have never been asked to help make their children’s lives better. I have yet to be asked for expertise on how they can help families to have more fulfilling experiences.

Here is where the paradigm shifts: how does one move from believing a vision is worthy and true to having a clear understanding of the path to achieving it?

It has been over a year now since Shinui: the Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education began to adopt this new vision for part-time education. This network, made up of representatives of 10 community education agencies across North America, has been meeting together for a number of years to support one another in the effort to change educational models inside and outside of congregations. Together, we have wrestled with defining “innovation” and identifying worthy models to share with one another. We have developed strategies to collectively spark, nurture, and spread innovation across the continent. Last spring, with the guidance and support of The William Davidson School Leadership Commons, we have begun to draft a theory of change that would shift the field to a focus on helping learners thrive in the world.

Always far ahead of the rest of the field, Dr. Jonathon Woocher gave this call five years ago when he asked, “How can we help Jews draw on and use their Jewishness to live more meaningful, fulfilling, responsible lives?” These words are both a tremendous paradigm shift and also deeply embedded in our collective beliefs. It’s hard for me to imagine people would say they do not wish for children to grow up to live meaningful, fulfilling, responsible lives. But, somehow, we did not focus our energies on creating a Jewish educational system that intentionally and compellingly would nurture this vision.

When the members of the Shinui network agreed that we would adopt this new vision for part-time Jewish education, this concept we called “thriving,” we found ourselves facing the same paradox. This new outcome felt right and familiar, but how should we accomplish this change? Believing that a vision is worthy and true is a far cry from clearly understanding the path to achieving it. 

So far we have adopted the following short-term strategies:

  • Learn what others have to say about thriving. While this is new to us, many others have been investigating thriving for many years. We have found thriving exploration in positive psychology, anthropology, and urban planning. What makes a human being thrive? And what makes a community or culture thrive?
  • Experience thriving. It’s hard to imagine successfully implementing a paradigm shift without first experiencing it. We are finding ways to bring thriving into our personal lives and to our colleagues. We are becoming our own lab rats.
  • Find more bright spots. It is difficult for most of us to change to what we don’t know. We can explain it and try to paint a picture. But real examples can inspire action and demonstrate possibility.
  • Think Like a Network. No one organization can accomplish this paradigm shift alone. We have acknowledged, as a network of organizations, that we can only accomplish this goal by working with one another and many others. When all those who share in this paradigm shift work with one another, we will make it a reality.

Turning theory into practice will be the greatest challenge in this process. Yet it is a process to which we are committed. We see the vision of a bright future where young people access their Jewish heritage and experiences to thrive fully in the world. The road to get there appears untamed and rocky. Together, we plan to forge a trail. We hope you join us for the journey.

Anna Marx is chief strategy officer of Jewish Learning Venture in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the project director of Shinui: the Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education, a network of 10 communal agencies from Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Toronto. She was also a former research assistant for Dr. Jonathan Woocher, z”l, a gift for which she will be forever grateful.