Religious School: An Institution Jews Love to Hate

Experts from the Experiment in Congregational Education address the challenges of creating and maintaining interesting and informative religious schools.

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A decade ago, the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, at the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College, began the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE) as a vehicle for transformation. Our goals were to create both congregations of learners (in which more people participate in richer and deeper learning) and learning congregations (which are reflective, ready to experiment, and practice collaborative leadership). During our first decade we worked intensively with fourteen congregations throughout North America. For the past year, under grants from the Nathan Cummings and Koret Foundations, the ECE has expanded its activities in an effort to reach a larger number of congregations, and to quicken the pace of their transformation. One of our new efforts focuses on re‑thinking and re‑designing the congregational school.

Through research and site visits, we have identified five alternative models that enrich and deepen participants, experiences. These models stress parents and children attending school together on a regular basis; transforming parents into teachers; forming Shabbat communities filled with learning and celebration; creating memorable experiences through the arts and large‑scale events; combining instruction with after‑school day care; and offering flexible scheduling arrangements through tutoring, camping, and independent study.

These models can't be transplanted without careful attention to context. They evolved in particular settings in response to specific needs, and in consonance with certain values affirmed by their communities. Each one owes its success, in large part, to a supportive congregational environment, in which learning is considered a communal responsibility.

A congregation thinking about adopting one (or a combination of several) of these models should, therefore, ask itself the following questions:

o What is our vision of congregational learning, and what role should religious school play in that vision?

o How can we adapt elements of the alternative models to fit this vision, and respond to our congregation's needs?

o How can our congregation support the new model to increase its chances for success?

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Robert Weinberg

Robert Weinberg, PhD, has worked as an organizational effectiveness consultant to corporations and Jewish institutions and is currently the Director of the Experiment in Congregational Education.